UNITED NATIONS — The Islamic State extremist group has taken control of a vast former chemical weapons facility northwest of Baghdad, where remnants of 2,500 degraded chemical rockets filled decades ago with the deadly nerve agent sarin are stored along with other chemical warfare agents, Iraq said in a letter circulated Tuesday at the United Nations.
The U.S. government played down the threat from the takeover, saying there are no intact chemical weapons and it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to use the material for military purposes.
Iraq’s U.N. Ambassador Mohamed Ali Alhakim told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a letter that “armed terrorist groups” entered the Muthanna site on June 11, detained officers and soldiers from the protection force guarding the facilities and seized their weapons. The following morning, the project manager spotted the looting of some equipment via the camera surveillance system before the “terrorists” disabled it, he said.
The Islamic State group, which controls parts of Syria, sent its fighters into neighboring Iraq last month and quickly captured a vast stretch of territory straddling the border between the two countries. Last week, its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared the establishment of an Islamic state, or caliphate, in the land the extremists control.
Alhakim said as a result of the takeover of Muthanna, Iraq is unable “to fulfil its obligations to destroy chemical weapons” because of the deteriorating security situation. He said it would resume its obligations “as soon as the security situation has improved and control of the facility has been regained.”
Alhakim singled out the capture of bunkers 13 and 41 in the sprawling complex 35 miles (56 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad in the notorious “Sunni Triangle.”
The last major report by U.N. inspectors on the status of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program was released about a year after the experts left in March 2003. It states that Bunker 13 contained 2,500 sarin-filled 122-mm chemical rockets produced and filled before 1991, and about 180 tons of sodium cyanide, “a very toxic chemical and a precursor for the warfare agent tabun.”
The U.N. said the bunker was bombed during the first Gulf War in February 1991, which routed Iraq from Kuwait, and the rockets were “partially destroyed or damaged.”
It said the sarin munitions were “of poor quality” and “would largely be degraded after years of storage under the conditions existing there.” It said the tabun-filled containers were all treated with decontamination solution and likely no longer contain any agent, but “the residue of this decontamination would contain cyanides, which would still be a hazard.”
According to the report, Bunker 41 contained 2,000 empty 155-mm artillery shells contaminated with the chemical warfare agent mustard, 605 one-ton mustard containers with residues, and heavily contaminated construction material. It said the shells could contain mustard residues which can’t be used for chemical warfare but “remain highly toxic.”
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki expressed concern on June 20 about the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant seizing the complex, but played down the importance of the two bunkers with “degraded chemical remnants,” saying the material dates back to the 1980s and was stored after being dismantled by U.N. inspectors in the 1990s.
She said the remnants “don’t include intact chemical weapons ... and would be very difficult, if not impossible, to safely use this for military purposes or, frankly, to move it.”
The Muthanna facility, south of the city of Samarra, was Iraq’s primary site for the production of chemical weapons agents. After the end of the first Gulf War, U.N. weapons inspectors worked there to get rid of chemicals that could be used in weapons, destroy production plants and equipment, and eliminate chemical warfare agents. The U.N. inspectors left just before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and never returned. The U.S.-led Iraq Survey Group then took over the search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and found none.
News of the facility’s takeover came amid continued political uncertainty in Iraq as leaders must agree on a new government that can confront the militant offensive that has plunged the country into its worst crisis since the last U.S. troops left in 2011.
Iraq’s parliament on Tuesday officially rescheduled its next session for Sunday after it was criticized for earlier plans to take a five-week break.