... There was never any question Iraq once had weapons of mass destruction programs. Nor was the world naïve enough to trust Saddam Hussein not to try and hide such weapons from UN inspectors. The rationale for the U.S. invasion, however, was that after a decade of sanctions, war, U.S. bombing runs, and UN inspections, Iraq still possessed a viable nuclear, chemical or biological threat that could be deployed beyond Iraq’s borders or which was in danger of being supplied to terrorist groups.
Unfortunately, there is absolutely no basis for this argument, made so forcefully by Secretary of State Colin Powell at the United Nations, when he claimed to possess clear evidence that huge stocks of everything from sarin gas to anthrax to sanction-violating missiles were stored in Iraq, ready for use...
According to Scott Ritter, former UN Iraqi weapons inspector , the chemical weapons which Iraq has been known to possess -- nerve agents like sarin and tabun -- have a shelf life of five years, VX just a bit longer. Saddam's major bio weapons are hardly any better; botulinum toxin is potent for about three years, and liquid anthrax about the same (under the right conditions). And he adds that since all chemical weapons were made in Iraq's only chemical weapons complex – the Muthanna State establishment, which was blown up during the first Gulf War in 1991 -- and all biological weapons plants and research papers were clearly destroyed by 1998, any remaining bio/chemical weapons stores are now "harmless, useless goo."
... But the truth of the matter is that Iraq’s WMD may have even less of a shelf life than Ritter now claims -- and the U.S. government knows it.
The U.S. Defense Department’s “Militarily Critical Technologies List” (MCTL) is “a detailed compendium of technologies" that the department advocates as “critical to maintaining superior US military capabilities. It applies to all mission areas, especially counter-proliferation.” Written in 1998, it was recently re-published with updates for 2002.
So what is the MCTL’s opinion of Iraq's chemical weapons program? In making its chemical nerve agents, “The Iraqis . . . produce[d] a . . . mixture which was inherently unstable,” says the report. “When the Iraqis produced chemical munitions they appeared to adhere to a ‘make and use’ regimen. Judging by the information Iraq gave the United Nations, later verified by on-site inspections, Iraq had poor product quality for their nerve agents. This low quality was likely due to a lack of purification. They had to get the agent to the front promptly or have it degrade in the munition.”
Furthermore, says this Defense Department report, “The chemical munitions found in Iraq after the [first] Gulf War contained badly deteriorated agents and a significant proportion were visibly leaking.” The shelf life of these poorly made agents were said to be a few weeks at best -- hardly the stuff of vast chemical weapons stores.
There was some talk shortly before the first Gulf War that the Iraqis had been creating binary chemical weapons, in which the relatively non-toxic ingredients of the agent remain unmixed until just before the weapon is used; this allows the user to bypass any worry about shelf life or toxicity. But according to the MCTL, “The Iraqis had a small number of bastardized binary munitions in which some unfortunate individual was to pour one ingredient into the other from a Jerry can prior to use” -- an action few soldiers were willing to perform.
Iraq did produce mustard gas that was somewhat more stable than the nerve agents. It may have a longer shelf life; perhaps potent forms of this agent could still be found. But one must wonder how worried we should be about Iraq’s poorly-made agents, several years after their production...