Iraq's WMD Arsenal: Deadly But Limited

Joseph Cirincione

Iraq's WMD Arsenal: Deadly But Limited

By Joseph Cirincione, based on analysis from the new Carnegie Publication,
Deadly Arsenals: Tracking Weapons of Mass Destruction.

From the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Proliferation Brief, Volume 5, Number 11
Wednesday, August 28, 2002

Many well-meaning political figures have made the mistake that Senator James Inhofe made on Meet the Press on August 18: "Our intelligence system has said that we know that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction — I believe including nuclear. There's not one person on this panel who would tell you unequivocally that he doesn't have the missile means now, or is nearly getting the missile means to deliver a weapon of mass destruction. And I for one am not willing to wait for that to happen."

In fact, U.S. intelligence agencies do not believe that Iraq has a nuclear weapon, or that the country is near developing either a nuclear weapon or a long-range missile.

Effective policy must be governed by facts, not fears. Step one is to disaggregate the now over-used catch phrase "weapons of mass destruction" that includes nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. All are not equal in threat. The possession or use of a chemical weapon that could kill dozens is not as dangerous as the possession or use of a nuclear weapon that could kill millions.

Iraq's WMD In Brief

Iraq almost certainly does not have nuclear weapons; but it almost certainly does have large numbers of chemical weapons and some biological weapons or agents. It does not have any missiles or planes that could strike the United States from its territory and it has very few that could deliver these weapons more than a few miles outside its borders.

These capabilities are, and have been for over twenty years, a threat to Iraq's neighbors and to its own people. Allied military operations destroyed many of these capabilities during the 1991 Gulf War and United Nations inspectors destroyed many times more facilities, missiles and weapons after the war.

Nuclear Weapon Capability

Iraq ratified the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1969, pledging not to manufacture nuclear weapons and agreeing to place all its nuclear materials and facilities under safeguards. Soon thereafter, Iraq began violating its NPT obligations by secretly pursuing a nuclear weapon program. The program was centered around the Osiraq research reactor purchased from France in 1976, which was capable of irradiating uranium to produce significant quantities of plutonium. Saddam Hussein planned to slowly extract enough plutonium for a bomb. Israel's preemptive strike on the reactor in June 1981 did not end Iraq's program, but expanded it.

Iraqi defector and former nuclear weapons director Khadir Hamza says, "Israel made a mistake." The bombing ended the plutonium effort but began a new program to produce highly-enriched uranium. "At the beginning we had approximately five hundred people working, which increased to seven thousand working after the Israeli bombing. The secret program became a much larger and ambitious program."1

The program was substantial, but plagued with problems. Still, Iraq may have been only a few years away from producing enough highly-enriched uranium for a bomb at the time of the Gulf War. After the war, International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors supervised the destruction of most of the nuclear weapon program facilities and removed all weapon-usable nuclear material from Iraq.

In 1998, the IAEA reaffirmed that there were no indications that Iraq had achieved its objective of producing nuclear weapons, nor were there indications that Iraq had produced more than a few grams of weapon-usable nuclear material or had otherwise acquired such material. It also reported that there were no indications that there remained in Iraq any physical capability for the production of weapon-usable nuclear material of any practical significance and that the IAEA had removed all weapon-usable nuclear material (research reactor fuel) from Iraq.2

Still, Iraq may have secretly reconstructed some nuclear capabilities. Some experts believe Saddam may have a workable design for a weapon, but no official report claims that he yet has the material to put in it. CIA officials told the Senate in March 2002, that Iraq, unconstrained, would need several years to produce enough material for a nuclear weapon.3

Chemical Weapon Capability

Inspections by the United Nations revealed that Iraq had one of the most extensive chemical weapons capabilities in the developing world. The Iraqi production of chemical weapons began in the early 1980s and continued until the Gulf War. Iraq declared that it had produced over 200,000 chemical weapon munitions, using up half of them in its war with Iran. While the Reagan administration publicly condemned the use of these weapons, the New York Times reported on August 18, that U.S. defense officials assisting Iraq at the time, knew of and did not oppose their use.

By the Gulf War, Iraq had produced sufficient quantities of chemical precursors for almost 500 metric tons of the nerve agent VX and hundreds of metric tons of tabun, sarin, and mustard gas. Iraq had weaponized mortal shells, artillery shells, grenades, aerial bombs and rockets for chemical use and deployed 50 missiles equipped with potent chemical warheads.

After the Gulf War, UNSCOM destroyed more than 480,000 liters of chemical agents and 1.8 million liters of chemical precursors in Iraq. Because of the size of the Iraqi program, however, it is widely believed that significant quantities of chemical agents and precursors remain stored in secret depots. U.N. officials have publicly expressed their doubts that the entire Iraqi stockpile of chemical weapons was found. Rough estimates conclude that Iraq may have retained up to 600 metric tons of agents, including VX, mustard gas and sarin. There are thousands of possible chemical munitions still unaccounted for.

Biological Weapon Capability

Until August 1990, the Iraqi biological weapon capability had been expanding and diversifying at a steady pace. The biological weapon program included a broad range of agents and delivery systems. Pathogens produced included both lethal agents (e.g., anthrax, botulinum toxin and ricin) and incapacitating agents (e.g., aflatoxin, mycotoxins, hemorrhagic conjunctivitis virus and rotavirus). UNSCOM reports indicated that Iraq had produced 8,500 liters of anthrax, 20,000 liters of botulinum, 2,200 liters of aflatoxin, and the biological agent ricin. The Iraqi BW program explored and developed a broad range of weapon delivery systems, including aerial bombs, rockets, missiles and spray tanks. In December of 1990, Iraq began the large-scale weaponization of biological agents that lasted through the end of the Gulf War and included more than 160 aerial bombs and 25 filled warheads for the 600-kilometer-range Al Hussein missiles.

UNSCOM repeatedly reported that Iraq had failed to provide a full and correct account of its biological weapon program. UNSCOM remained concerned that Iraq may have retained a stock of biological weapons and related manufacturing capabilities as late as 1997. In the absence of inspections, it is likely that Iraq retains stockpiles of anthrax, botulinum toxin and aflatoxin. There are numerous unconfirmed reports of Iraq's research into and possible production of other agents.

Aircraft and Missile Capability

Iraq has limited means of delivering any weapon of mass destruction. Iraq has no capability to attack the United States from its own territory and only limited capability to attack neighboring countries by air. It is unlikely that any of Iraq's remaining airplanes could fly undetected out of the country or survive long after detection.

U.N. resolutions limit Iraq to missiles with ranges under 150 kilometers. Still, Iraq may have hidden 10-20 Scud missiles with a range of 300-600 km, according to some former inspectors. These systems, however, are likely to be poorly maintained. Under a worst-case analysis, U.S. intelligence agencies estimate that Iraq might be able to develop a intercontinental-range missile by 2015. The agencies conclude that "for the next several years at least, Iraq's ballistic missile initiatives will focus on reconstituting its pre-Gulf War capabilities to threaten regional targets and probably will not advance beyond MRBM [medium-range ballistic missile] systems."4 Moreover, "most agencies believe that Iraq is unlikely to test before 2015 any ICBMs that could threaten the United States, even if U.N. prohibitions were eliminated."5


There is no evidence that Iraq has a nuclear weapon or will soon have one, unless Saddam is able to get fissile material from some other nation. The greatest threat from a weapon of mass destruction would be from the delivery of a biological agent, probably by non-missile means, that is, by truck or ship or possibly small aircraft. However, it is unclear what such an attack would accomplish and why Saddam would attempt such an attack. If the attack were covert and the assailants unknown, there would be no glory or gain for Iraq; if Iraq were known as the source of the attack-or even suspected as the source-there would undoubtedly be an overwhelming and devastating counter-attack that would eliminate the Iraqi leadership.

While there may be thousands of chemical-tipped rockets and bombs still in Iraq, these are primarily short-range weapons. If delivered, dozens or hundreds would die, but not significantly more than would die from conventional military assaults or terrorist attacks on critical infrastructures.

Iraq has chemical and biological weapons that would complicate any military actions, but it is not clear that these capabilities are rapidly increasing in the absence of UN inspections. The administration-and other nations-should disclose their detailed threat assessments as soon as possible to permit an informed public debate on the threats from Iraq and their urgency.

1. Presentation by Dr. Khidir Hamza, author of Saddam's Bombmaker (with Jeff Stein) at the Carnegie Endowment, Washington, D.C. 2 November 2000

2. "The Implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolutions Relation to Iraq, Report by the Director-General" (United Nations: August 1998). See also, Gary B. Dillion, "The IAEA Iraq Action Team Record: Activities and Findings," In Iraq: A New Approach, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, (Washington, D.C.: September 2002). Available at

3. Statement of Robert Walpole, heaing on the "CIA National Intelligence Estimate of Foreign Missile Development and the Ballistic Missile Threat through 2015," before the Senate Subcommittee on International Security, Proliferation, and Federal Services, 11 March 2002

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

Additional Resources:

* Iraq chapter from Deadly Arsenals: Tracking Weapons of Mass Destruction (pdf)
* More on Deadly Arsenal
* Iraq Country Resource Page
* Hearings on Iraq, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 30 &31 July 2002

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