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At the end of the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein and his elite military units were still in power and in possession of huge stockpiles of deadly weapons. In April 1991, the U.N. Security Council created UNSCOM, a special commission to find and dismantle this arsenal. The U.N. imposed economic sanctions on Iraq that would be enforced until the country eliminated all nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons capability.

Two agencies were charged with the task. UNSCOM would uncover and destroy Iraq's biological- and chemical-weapons and ballistic-missile programs; the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was charged with uncovering and dismantling Iraq's clandestine nuclear program.

From 1991 to 1998 UNSCOM and IAEA carried out numerous inspections in Iraq, but with varying degrees of success.

For the first few years, Iraqi officials failed to disclose much of their special weapons programs to the inspectors. In 1995, Saddam Hussein's son-in-law Kamel Hussein defected. He had been in charge of the bioweapons program and revealed to UNSCOM that there was a vast arsenal of weapons they had failed to uncover, including biological weapons, and described how the Iraqis were hiding them. This was a breakthrough for the inspection teams, and they continued their work until 1998, when Iraq blocked further access and expelled UNSCOM.

What follows is a summary of what IAEA and UNSCOM had found in Iraq, up until 1998.

For more on UNSCOM's inspections, see FRONTLINE's report "Spying on Saddam."

Iraq's Nuclear Weapons Program

Between 1991 and 1998 the IAEA conducted more than 1500 inspections. IAEA released a report in 1997, with updates in 1998 and 1999, which it believes offers a technically coherent picture of Iraq's nuclear program.

In summary, the IAEA report says that following the August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Iraq launched a "crash program" to develop a nuclear weapon quickly by extracting weapons grade material from safe-guarded research reactor fuel. This project, if it had continued uninterrupted by the war, might have succeeded in producing a deliverable weapon by the end of 1992.[1]

The IAEA inspections revealed seven nuclear-related sites in Iraq. [2] The IAEA reports that all sensitive nuclear materials were removed, and that facilities and equipment were dismantled or destroyed. Activities uncovered and destroyed included:

  • an industrial scale complex for Electromagnetic Isotope Separation (EMIS), a process for producing enriched uranium. The complex was designed for the installation of 90 separators; before the Gulf War, eight were functional. If all separators had been installed, the plant could have produced 15 kg of highly enriched uranium per year, possibly enough for one nuclear weapon.

  • a large scale manufacturing and testing facility--the Al Furat Project--designed for the production of centrifuges, used in another method of uranium enrichment.

  • facilities and equipment for the production of weapons components.

  • computer simulations of nuclear weapons detonations

  • storage of large quantities of HMX high explosive used in nuclear weapons.

According to former U.N. inspector David Kay, Iraq spent over $10 billion during the 1980s in an attempt to enrich uranium and build a nuclear weapon. However, the Agency concludes that as of December, 1998, "There were no indications to suggest that Iraq was successful in its attempt to produce nuclear weapons," or "that there remains in Iraq any physical capability for the production of amounts of weapons-usable nuclear material of any practical significance." However, the IAEA did find that "Iraq was at, or close to, the threshold of success in such areas as the production of [highly enriched uranium] ... and the fabrication of the explosive package for a nuclear weapon." Despite the fact that the facilities and nuclear material had been destroyed or removed, as early as 1996 the IAEA concluded that "the know-how and expertise acquired by Iraqi scientists and engineers could provide an adequate base for reconstituting a nuclear-weapons-oriented program."

Nuclear physicist and Iraqi defector Khidhir Hamza agrees. He told FRONTLINE that Iraq did not relinquish certain critical components of the nuclear program to the inspectors, and that it retains the expertise necessary to build a nuclear weapon. He believes that Iraq may have one completed within the next couple of years.

Note: IAEA was allowed back into Iraq in January 2000 and again in January 2001. But its inspectors were blocked from full access inspections.

Iraq's Biological Weapons (BW) Program

Between 1991 and 1998, UN inspectors conducted more than 70 inspections into Iraq's biological warfare activities. In its 1999 final report to the U.N. Security Council, UNSCOM noted that Iraq's biological warfare program was "among the most secretive of its programs of weapons of mass destruction." It said that Iraq "took active steps" to conceal the program, including "inadequate disclosures, unilateral destruction, and concealment activities." Therefore, the Commission concluded, "it has not been possible to verify" Iraq's statements about the extent and nature of its biological weapons program.

A 58 page annex to the final report describes what the Commission was able to learn about the BW program, despite Iraq's concealment activities, and documents discrepancies between what Iraq claimed to have developed, or destroyed, and the physical evidence. Some of the findings include:

  • Extensive BW program: Iraq had an extensive BW program from 1973 until at least 1991. In mid-1995, Iraq admitted that it had weaponized BW agents, but claimed that the entire BW program had been in "obliterated" in 1991 and that all BW weapons had been destroyed and all bulk BW agents had been deactivated. The Commission found, however, that the evidence produced in support of this claim was not credible, and that Iraq "retained suitable growth media, BW facilities, production equipment, teams of expert personnel, and the essential technical knowledge" after 1991.

  • Bulk production: In July, 1995, Iraq acknowledged that between 1988 and 1991, it had produced two BW agents in bulk: botulinum toxin and Bacillus anthracis spores (anthrax). Iraq reported 19,180 liters of botulinum toxin (10-20 fold concentrated) and 8445 liters of Bacillus anthracis spores (10 fold concentrated).

    UNSCOM found, however, that "bulk warfare agent production appears to be considerably understated," given the resources available to Iraq's BW program, including growth media and fermenter capacity. The Commission said that the production rate of Botulinum toxin could be as much as double the stated amount, and 3 times greater than that stated for Bacillus anthracis spores.

    Iraq claimed that it unilaterally destroyed more than 7500 liters of the Botulinum toxin and 3412 liters of Bacillus anthracis spores in 1991; UNSCOM noted that there was not evidence to support quantities claimed to be destroyed. The report concludes "the Commission has no confidence that all bulk agents have been destroyed... and that a BW capability does not exist in Iraq."

    Iraq also claims to have produced lesser quantities of clostridium perfringens spores, ricin, and wheat cover smut.

  • BW Warheads: Iraq claimed to have produced 25 Al-Hussein missile warheads and filled them with BW agents. The Commission found that there was no credible evidence to show that only 25 missiles were produced and filled. Iraq declared that the 25 missiles were unilaterally destroyed; the Commission found enough physical evidence to account for the declared quantities of BW warheads, but the location of the remnants were inconsistent with Iraq's story.

  • BW bombs: Iraq declared that 200 R-400 aerial bombs were manufactured for BW purposes, but acknowledged that the numbers of bombs filled with particular agents (100 with botulinum toxin, 50 with bacillus anthracis spores, and 7 with aflatoxin) were "guesses." UNSCOM did find evidence of the destruction of some BW bombs at the site declared by Iraq, but found that the remnants account for less than one third of the bombs Iraq claims to have destroyed. In addition, UNSCOM found evidence of R-400A bombs carrying BW at an airfield where no BW weapons were declared.

  • Aircraft drop tanks: Iraq claimed that it produced 4 aircraft drop tanks to disseminate BW agents, and was developing a pilotless aircraft that could carry the tanks, holding either BW or chemical weapons, and release the toxins at a preset time. UNSCOM found that there was no evidence corroborate that only 4 were produced, and noted that interviews indicated that 12 were planned. Remnants of only three destroyed tanks were recovered. UNSCOM also rejected the evidence offered by Iraq--a letter thanking the project workers--that the pilotless aircraft project was shut down.

  • Aerosol Generators: Iraq developed aerosol generators for the dispersal of BW agents by modifying helicopter-borne commercial chemical insecticide disseminators. Although Iraq claimed the devices were ineffective, UNSCOM received documentation that they were successfully field tested. Interview evidence suggests that there were 12 devices produced; none were destroyed by UNSCOM.

  • Remaining Bacterial Growth Media: UNSCOM determined that there remained substantial bacterial growth media imported into Iraq which remains unaccounted for: 460 kg. of casien; 80 kg. of thioglocollate broth; 520 kg. of yeast extract; and 1100 kg of peptone. The report says that "the amounts that are 'missing' are significant, and would be sufficient to produce quantities of agent comparable to that already declared by Iraq."

Iraq's Chemical Weapons (CW) Program

UNSCOM was more successful in its pursuit of Iraq's CW program largely because Iraq was more cooperative with its disclosures. The final report notes that a "significant number" of chemical weapons, their components, and related equipment were destroyed under UNSCOM supervision between 1991 and 1997. In addition, the report found:

  • Extensive CW program: Iraq acknowledged that it carried out a large scale CW program between 1982 and 1990. It claims that more than 50% of its chemical weapons stocks were consumed during the 1980s, and that the majority of its production facilities were destroyed by aerial bombing during the Gulf War.

  • Bulk CW agents: Iraq said that it produced 3,859 tons of CW agents during the entire implementation of its CW program, and that 3,315 tons of these agents were weaponized. Agents produced in large quantities included mustard, tabun, and sarin.

    According to Iraq, 80% of the weaponized CW agents were consumed between 1982 and 1988. In addition, they claim to have unilaterally discarded 130 tons of non-weaponized CW agents during the 1980s. UNSCOM found that these numbers could not be verified.

    After the Gulf War, Iraq claimed that it had 412.5 tons of CW agents remaining. Four hundred eleven tons were destroyed under UNSCOM supervision; 1.5 tons of the CW agent VX remain unaccounted for.

  • Special Munitions: Iraq claimed that between 1982 and 1988, 100,000 munitions filled with CW agents were consumed or disposed of. UNSCOM found that this number could not be verified.

    After the Gulf war, Iraq declared that there remained over 56,000 special munitions which could carry either CW or BW agents (22,000 filled, 34,000 unfilled). These munitions are all accounted for. They were either destroyed or converted for conventional weapons purposes.

    Iraq claimed that there were 42,000 special munitions destroyed in the Gulf War. UNSCOM was unable to verify that number, and found that the destruction of 2,000 unfilled munitions remains uncertain, and 550 filled munitions remain unaccounted for.

    Iraq claimed that it unilaterally destroyed 29,000 special munitions; UNSCOM found that of these, 100 filled munitions remain unaccounted for.


  • UNSCOM Final Report to the Security Council (January 25, 1999)

  • IAEA Fact Sheet on Iraq's Nuclear Weapons Program

  • Iraq Special Weapons Guide

  • Center for Nonproliferation Studies Iraq Special Collection


  • The Big One This November 2001 New Republic article by Gregg Easterbrook examines the state of Iraq's nuclear weapons program and the possibility that other terrorist states or groups may also be close to acquiring nuclear weapons.

  • Saddam's Bomb
    This article from The New York Times magazine tells the story of Khidhir Hamza, the nuclear physicist who headed Saddam's nuclear program before defecting to the West in 1994.

    [1] Tracking Nuclear Proliferation, a Guide in Maps and Charts, 1998, Rodney W. Jones and Mark G. NcDonough, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. (1998). p. 191

    [2] Details on facilities uncovered are from Tracking Nuclear Proliferation, a Guide in Maps and Charts, 1998, Rodney W. Jones and Mark G. NcDonough, Carnegie Endowmwnet for International Peace. (1998)

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