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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

[CRS Issue Brief for Congress]

Iraqi Chemical & Biological Weapons (CBW) Capabilities

April 1998

Steve Bowman
Foreign Affairs and National Defense Division

The United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) has destroyed large
amounts of CB weapons and materials in Iraq since 1991. UNSCOM has
reported no firm evidence that Iraq still retains weapons or material,
but the Iraqi government has not provided adequate evidence to support
its claim all its CBW arsenal has been destroyed, nor has it accounted
for CBW production materials known to have been in its possession.
These factors, coupled with Iraqi obstruction of UNSCOM inspections
has led to strong suspicions. U.S. and British intelligence agencies
believe that Iraq still may possess tons of chemical warfare agents
and the necessary materials to produce thousands of liters of
biological agents. In addition, UNSCOM an U.S. intelligence believe
Iraq may still have hidden from 2-10 warheads designed to deliver
chemical or biological agents. UNSCOM and U.S. intelligence differ in
their estimates of the number of missiles that may still be in Iraq.
The Iraqi chemical warfare arsenal has included nerve agents (Sarin
and VX), blister agents ("mustard gas"), and psychoactive agents
(so-called Agent 15). Biological/toxin warfare agents produced by Iraq
include anthrax, botulinum, aflotoxins, ebola virus, bubonic and
pneumonic plague, ricin, and clostrdium perfringens. Reconstitution of
militarily significant production capability using materials
unaccounted for to UNSCOM could take only a matter of weeks. During
the week of February 23, the Senate is scheduled to consider
S.Con.Res. 71, calling on the President to take all necessary and
appropriate actions in response to the threat posed by Iraq's refusal
to end its lethal weapons program.
Iraq's Chemical and Biological Arsenal
In April 1991, the United Nations Security Council established the
ceasefire conditions for the conflict in the Persian Gulf Iraq
accepted Security Council Resolution 687, which required the
destruction or neutralization of 1) all nuclear, chemical, and
biological weapons, and 2) all ballistic missiles with a range over
150 kilometers (90 miles). SCR 687 also prohibited Iraq from future
development, production, or use of such weapons in the future.
Subsequent Security Council Resolution 715 established the United
Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) to monitor and verify Iraqi
compliance with these disarmament requirements. (See CRS Issue Brief
Iraqi Compliance with Ceasefire Agreements, 92117)
Since 1991 UNSCOM inspectors in Iraq have overseen the destruction of:
-- 38,000 chemical munitions
-- 480,000 liters of chemical warfare agents and precursors
-- 48 ballistic missiles
-- 6 missile launchers
-- 30 CBW missile warheads
During the last six years of inspections, the Iraqi government has
made many declarations concerning the volume and deposition of
chemical and biological weapons programs -- all of which have been
proven or judged to be inaccurate or incomplete. No admission, for
example, of their extensive biological weapons program was made until
Iraqi defectors forced acknowledgment. Iraq then claimed that all BW
agents and materials had been destroyed -- a claim rejected by both
UNSCOM and Western intelligence agencies. As incomplete as they may
be, Iraq declarations indicate a very extensive CBW program. UNSCOM
guidelines require the confidentiality of its reports, and it is only
recently that some details have been released by the U.S. and British
governments. Information released so far indicates that prior to the
Persian Gulf conflict Iraq produced (and claims to have destroyed):
-- 4 tons of VX persistent nerve agent
-- 19,000 liters of botulinum toxin
-- 8,400 liters of anthrax spores
-- unspecified amounts of the nerve agent Sarin and the blister agent
"mustard gas"
Iraq has also acknowledged that prior to the Persian Gulf conflict it
manufactured 100 botulinum bombs, 50 anthrax bombs, and 7 aflatoxin
bombs. In addition, 16 missile warheads were filled with botulinum,
five with anthrax bacillus, and four with aflatoxin.
U.S. and British intelligence agencies believe that Iraq has hidden
stores of CBW agents, production equipment, ballistic missiles, and
missile warheads. UNSCOM has reported no firm evidence that Iraq still
retains weapons or materiel, but the Iraqi government has not provided
adequate evidence to support its claim that all its CBW arsenal has
been destroyed, nor has it accounted for CBW production materials
known to have been in its possession. These factors, coupled with
Iraqi obstruction of UNSCOM inspections, have led to strong
suspicions. U.S. and British intelligence agencies believe that Iraq
still may possess tons of chemical warfare agents and the necessary
materials to produce thousands of liters of biological agents. UNSCOM
and U.S. intelligence differ in their estimates of the number of
actual missiles that may still be in Iraq. Again information is
sketchy. In part, this is because much is classified, but even the
classified information is reportedly incomplete. A recent report
issued by the British government, however, provided some information
(Foreign and Commonwealth Office --
-- British intelligence believes that up to ten SCUD missiles capable
of carrying CBW warheads remain hidden.
-- UNSCOM reports that between 40-70 CBW-capable missile warheads are
unaccounted for.
-- Iraq possessed enough growth medium to produce over 16,000 liters
more anthrax spores than has been acknowledged.
-- 4,000 tons of CW precursor chemicals are unaccounted for; enough to
produce several hundred tons of CW agents.
-- 31,000 CW munitions remain unaccounted for.
-- Essential CW production equipment remains unaccounted for.
-- It is believed that Iraq may retain undetermined amounts of Ebola
virus, bubonic and pneumonic plague bacteria, and the toxin ricin.
The current debate over the advisability of airstrikes has highlighted
two significant challenges in the efforts to eliminate Iraq's CBW
arsenal: 1) the great difficulty of locating and destroying CBW
stocks, if they exist, through air power alone, and 2) the relative
ease of reconstituting a CBW production program after such attacks,
particularly if the goal is relatively small amounts suitable for
terror attacks. The estimates have ranged from weeks to months, unless
a close monitoring regime is maintained. Recent press reports indicate
that even under the UNSCOM regime and the U.N. embargo on CBW-related
equipment, Iraq may have been able to acquire equipment that could be
used to produce biological weapons in a clandestine purchase from
Russia.(1) Were such assistance to continue, reconstitution of a
significant CBW capability would be relatively simple. Production of
smaller amounts of CBW agents for terrorist use would be
proportionately easier, and employment need not involve sophisticated
delivery systems.
Another concern regarding airstrikes is the probability and effect of
releasing CBW agents into the air as a result of bombing. There is a
high degree of unpredictability in any such estimate. This has been
exemplified by the difficulties that those investigating the so-called
Persian Gulf War Syndrome have experienced in determining how many
U.S. troops may have been exposed to some level of nerve agent after
the U.S. destruction of an Iraqi munitions depot shortly after the
Persian Gulf conflict. A variety of factors would affect whether
contamination would be localized or widespread, temporary or
long-term. These include: type of CBW agent, type of munition, target
location, population density, wind, humidity, level of sunlight, and
temperature. There are U.S. munitions in the experimental stages
intended specifically to reduce collateral contamination by
penetrating bunkers before detonating or by destroying CBW agents
through incineration rather than explosion. It is not clear, however,
whether these weapons will be deployed to the Persian Gulf while still
under development.
For the purposeful use of chemical and biological weapons, predictive
models of lethality do exist. In 1993, the Office of Technology
Assessment developed the following estimate using the District of
Columbia as the hypothetical target under three different weather
conditions. The scenarios assumed aerosol agent distribution by an
aircraft flying a line along the western city limit. Estimated
fatalities resulting from the dispersal of approximately one ton of
Sarin nerve agent or 220 lbs of anthrax spores were:
Clear sunny day, Overcast or night, Clear calm night
             light breeze          moderate wind
Sarin 300-700 400-800 3,000-8000
Anthrax 130,000-140,000 420,000-1.4 1-3 million
Source: Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction: Assessing the
Risks, Office of Technology Assessment. 1993.
Press reports and commentaries which carry even more distressingly
high fatality estimates are generally calculated simply by determining
how many lethal "doses" of agent could be supplied by the Iraqi
stockpile. This type of estimate does not take into account any of the
factors affecting actual employment.
Chemical and Biological Agent Characteristics
Nerve Agents -- These agents disrupt normal functioning of the central
nervous system. They are colorless, tasteless, and odorless. Sarin is
delivered as an aerosol and evaporates rather rapidly. Inhalation of
100 milligrams is lethal. VX is a persistent agent (effective for days
or weeks depending upon climactic conditions) Absorbed through the
skin, 5- 10 milligrams are lethal. Exposure to nerve agents results in
nausea, diarrhea, pulmonary edema, and convulsions leading to death by
respiratory arrest in within one to fifteen minutes, depending on the
"Mustard Gas" -- "Mustard gas" is actually an oily brownish liquid
with a smell similar to garlic. It is a vesicant or blister agent. It
is generally severely incapacitating rather than lethal, though
intense or prolonged exposure can lead to fatal pulmonary edema. An
incapacitating dose is about 200 milligrams, and 1,500 milligrams
inhaled is sufficient to kill. Mustard gas damages any tissue it
contacts, causing extensive and large blisters which last several
weeks. Permanent damage to the lungs and eyes can result.
"Agent-15" -- The British government recently asserted that Iraq
developed large stocks of an incapacitant gas dubbed "Agent- 15". It
is apparently a glycollate similar in effect to the agent BZ, an
incapacitant once produced by the United States. If this is correct,
exposure to about 100 milligrams in aerosolized form would be
sufficient to incapacitate. Symptoms, which begin within 30 minutes of
exposure and may last several days, include dizziness, vomiting,
confusion, stupor, hallucinations, and irrational behavior. The U.S.
Army considered BZ to be too unpredictable in its effectiveness to be
useful on the battlefield, and all U.S. stocks were destroyed.
Anthrax -- Anthrax is a disease caused by the bacillus Anthracis.
Infection can result from inhalation, ingestion, or absorption through
the skin. Most effectively dispersed as an aerosol, anthrax spores
decay in a matter of days in sunlight, but can contaminate soil for
decades. 10,000 to 20,000 spores is a lethal dose -- "something
smaller than a speck of dust," according to a DOD biological warfare
expert.(2) Symptom onset occurs 3-4 days after exposure, and initially
resembles that of a common cold. Symptoms do not become identifiable
as anthrax until the fatal phase of the disease, when vomiting, severe
head and joint aches, and respiratory distress lead to death within
1-3 days. Vaccines are available against some forms of anthrax, but
their efficacy against abnormally high concentrations of the bacteria
is uncertain. Antibiotic treatment can be effective, but only if
administered prior to the onset of symptoms, otherwise the fatality
rate can exceed 90%.
Aflatoxin -- Aflatoxins are toxins produced by the aspergillus flavis
and aspergillus parasiticus fungi. They occur naturally on moldy
grains and foodstuffs. The toxic dosage for humans has not been
determined, but one type is considered a potent cause of liver cancer.
Botulinum Toxin -- Botulinum, produced by the clostridium botulinum
bacteria, causes the food-poisoning "botulism". In pure form, it is a
white crystalline substance, that is readily dissolvable in water, but
decays rapidly in the open air. The symptoms of botulism begin 12-72
hours after exposure depending upon whether it is inhaled or ingested.
Symptoms include nausea, diarrhea, paralysis of the throat, and
convulsions, followed by death due to respiratory arrest. Vaccines are
available, but again, their efficacy against abnormally high toxin
dosages is uncertain. Early diagnosis and palliative treatment can
prevent fatality.
Clostridium Perfringens -- Clostridium Perfringens is a widespread
bacterium which causes gas gangrene if allowed to grow in wounds or
damaged tissue, The bacteria produce gases that cause intense swelling
and toxins that kill muscle tissue. If not treated the bacteria enter
the bloodstream causing fatal systemic illness. Early antibiotic
treatment is effective, if undertaken before significant amounts of
toxins have accumulated in the body.
(1) "Did Russia Sell Germ Warfare Equipment?," Washington Post,
February 12, 1998, P. 1.
(2) Transcript, Department of Defense press conference, November 14,

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