Unfinished business: an unspoken legacy of chemical arms.
U.S. Army 1st Lt. Ty Lin, platoon leader, and Sgt. 1st Class Nicholas Maney, platoon sergeant, 3rd Platoon, Company A, 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Advise and Assist Brigade, explain the route and security precautions for the day’s mission in support of the Tikrit Provincial Reconstruction Team during a mission brief at Contingency Operating Base Speicher, Iraq.
At American prodding, Iraq entered the Convention on Chemical Weapons in early 2009. From that moment, its fledgling government assumed primary responsibility for securing and destroying any chemical munitions remaining from Mr. Hussein’s time.
The difficulties this posed for Iraq’s troops became clear in April 2010 when an Iraqi police patrol found about a dozen M110 mustard shells near the Tigris River.
One of the police officers involved, Farhan Hachel, said he and others were ordered to gather the shells and take them to Awenat, a village south of Tikrit.
Officer Hachel picked up one the shells and carried it across his chest. He woke the next morning with “small bubbles” on his upper body, blisters, he said that “were growing really fast.”
The next day, he said, “I received a phone call from my colleagues asking me if I was doing O.K., as two others were suffering the same thing.”
His friends told him then that they had carried leaking chemical shells.
In all, seven Iraqi police officers were burned, Officer Hachel and officials said. The American military secretly destroyed the shells, and photographed and briefly treated the burned police officers. The care was cursory.
“They gave us some creams and sent us home,” Officer Hachel said.
And still more mustard shells were found.
The last large discovery of chemical rounds widely known among ordnance techs occurred at a surprising place — a security compound known as Spider, beside a highway south of Tikrit.
During the occupation, both American and Iraqi units had worked from the compound. The presence of mustard shells there, soldiers said, appeared a result of negligence.
The discovery, described by different sources as in 2010 or early 2011, was made when an Iraqi security officer visited Contingency Operating Base Speicher, and told the ordnance disposal troops there that Iraqi troops had opened a shipping container and found it packed with chemical shells.
The report led to Operation Guardian, when an American soldier from a technical escort unit, wearing a protective suit and mask and carrying a detector, reopened the shipping container.
A detector’s alarm immediately rang, warning of mustard agent, said Staff Sgt. Paul Yungandreas, one of the American techs assigned to recover the shells.
Inside were stacks of M110-style shells. “We carried out the rounds, one by one, and put them on plastic tarps,” he said.
The operation’s planners had expected 150 to 200 shells. The disposal technicians found nearly 400.
Many of the shells were empty. Others still contained mustard agent. Most showed signs of age and decay.
Many had been wrapped in plastic — a powerful indicator, several techs said, that they had been collected elsewhere by an American or an Iraqi unit, which then failed to secure them properly.
Like most incidents in which American troops encountered chemical weapons in Iraq, Operation Guardian was not publicly disclosed.
By then adherence to the international convention, and the security of the stock, was not much longer a Pentagon concern.
The United States had invaded Iraq to reduce the risk of the weapons of mass destruction that it presumed Mr. Hussein still possessed. And after years of encountering and handling Iraq’s old chemical arms, it had retroactively informed the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in 2009 that it had recovered more than 4,500 chemical weapons.
But it had not shared this data publicly. And as it prepared to withdraw, old stocks set loose after the invasion were still circulating. Al Muthanna had still not been cleaned up.
Finding, safeguarding and destroying these weapons was to be the responsibility of Iraq’s government.
When three journalists from The Times visited Al Muthanna in 2013, a knot of Iraqi police officers and soldiers guarded the entrance. Two contaminated bunkers — one containing cyanide precursors and old sarin rockets — loomed behind. The area where Marines had found mustard shells in 2008 was out of sight, shielded by scrub and shimmering heat.
The Iraqi troops who stood at that entrance are no longer there. The compound, never entombed, is now controlled by the Islamic State.