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Iraq offers lessons on destroying Syria's chemical weapons

Iraq is the only other country that has been forced to surrender its chemical weapons.

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A convoy of inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons prepares to cross into Syria at the Lebanese border crossing point of Masnaa, eastern Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, Tuesday.

Bilal Hussein/AP

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When Syria's application to the Chemical Weapons Convention comes into effect Oct. 14, the country will become the 190th member state of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

But many aspects of Syria's entry into the CWC and the plan to eradicate its arsenal are firsts. No other signatory has been required to surrender its chemical weapons in such a short time – the July 1 deadline is only nine months away. It is also the first time that the OPCW will be operating in a country at war, adding danger and complexity to the task.

Since the CWC came into effect in 1997, seven countries have turned over their chemical arsenals: the United States, Russia, India, Albania, South Korea, Libya, and Iraq. Iraq is the only other country compelled by international pressure, rather than unilaterally volunteering, to dismantle its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program.

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Between 1991 and 1999, the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) scoured the country for chemical and biological weapons and ballistic missile systems.

"It turns out we were much more successful with UNSCOM than we knew at the time. I estimate that we probably eliminated maybe 80 or more percent of the Iraqi chemical inventory in roughly [the first] 18 months," says Charles Duelfer, a former acting chairman of UNSCOM and later the head of the group that conducted the post-2003 invasion investigation into Iraq's WMDs.

Most of Iraq's chemical weapons were transferred to two vast bunkers, where they remain under lock and key while experts ponder how to destroy them. "Where it was feasible, we transported the old agents to that facility. If it was too dangerous or they were leaking, we tended to blow them up in place [in fire pits dug into the sand].... We would put cans of heating oil around them and detonate it," Mr. Duelfer says.

Fire pits are unlikely to be used in Syria because of environmental concerns.

Libya joined the OPCW in 2004 after relinquishing its WMD program to improve ties with the West. A little more than half the estimated 23 tons of chemical weapons had been destroyed by the time the uprising began in February 2011. The new Libyan government revealed the existence of an additional stockpile of chemical weapons – the first time a signatory to the CWC admitted possession of a previously undisclosed chemical weapons stockpile.

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See related story on how OPCW will dismantle Syria's chemical weapons


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