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Sky Soldiers in the trees.

U.S. Army paratroopers assigned to Company C, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade, conduct squad level live-fire training near Tapa, Estonia. The paratroopers of Company C are part of approximately 600 paratroopers from the brigade training with NATO allies in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, as part of an unscheduled land forces exercise to demonstrate commitment to NATO obligations and sustain interoperability with allied forces.

[Pictured are (2) Sergeant John Sheets; (3) Private First Class Robert Bryn; (5) Sergeant Timothy Helsel; and (6) at right, U.S. Army Capt. Dwayne Steppe, company commander.]

(Photos by Sergeant Anthony Jones, 145th MPAD, Oklahoma Army National Guard, 9 JUN 2014.)

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Expecting explosives, finding chemical arms.

US Air Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal robot nicknamed Johnny Five, is blasted backward into mid-air while investigating an improvised explosive device during a route clearance operation with the Annihilators of Company A, 2nd Platoon, Special Troops Battalion, 1st Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, in Kirkuk, Iraq.

(U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Margaret C. Nelson, 115th MPAD, 20 JAN 2008. Part 2 of article by C.J. Chivers, NY Times, 14 OCT 2014. Part 1. Also watch the Times Documentary video with soldier interviews.)

The cache that contaminated Sergeant Duling’s team was not the first discovery of chemical weapons in the war. American troops had already found thousands of similar warheads and shells.

These repeated encounters sprang from a basic feature of the occupation: After the invasion, Iraq became a battlefield laced with hidden, lethal traps — most tied to the country’s protracted history in the global arms trade.

Iraq had attacked Iran in late 1980, expecting quick victory against a military sapped of officers by Iran’s revolutionary purges. Mr. Hussein also thought Iranians might rise against their new religious leaders.

He miscalculated. By June 1981, as Iran blunted Iraq’s incursions and unleashed its air force against Iraqi cities, Mr. Hussein was seeking new weapons. He created a secret program — known as Project 922 — that produced blister and nerve agents by the hundreds of tons, according toIraq’s confidential declarations in the 1990s to the United Nations.

External image

Iranian soldiers wearing gas masks southeast of Basra, Iraq, in 1987, during the Iran-Iraq war. In the 1980s, while at war with Iran, Saddam Hussein created a secret program that produced blister and nerve agents by the hundreds of tons. (Associated Press)

War provided urgency; Mr. Hussein added the cash. Western nations, some eager to contain Iran’s Islamic revolutionary state after the American hostage crisis from 1979 to 1981, lent Iraq support.

With remarkable speed, Iraq built a program with equipment and precursor purchases from companies in an extraordinary array of countries, eventually including the United States, according to its confidential declarations.

German construction firms helped create a sprawling manufacturing complex in the desert south of Samarra and three plants in Falluja that made precursor ingredients for chemical weapons. The complex near Samarra, later renamed Al Muthanna State Establishment, included research labs, production lines, testing areas and storage bunkers.

MUCH OF THE STOCKPILE WAS EXPENDED OR DESTROYED, BUT THOUSANDS OF CHEMICAL SHELLS AND WARHEADS REMAINED.

Iraq produced 10 metric tons of mustard blister agent in 1981; by 1987 its production had grown 90-fold, with late-war output aided by two American companies that provided hundreds of tons of thiodiglycol, a mustard agent precursor. Production of nerve agents also took off.

Rising production created another need. Mr. Hussein’s military did not possess the munitions for dispersing chemical agents. So it embarked on another buying spree, purchasing empty ordnance — aviation bombs from a Spanish manufacturer, American-designed artillery shells from European companies, and Egyptian and Italian ground-to-ground rockets — to be filled in Iraq.

As these strands of a chemical weapons program came together, Iraq simultaneously accumulated enormous stores of conventional munitions.

Much of the chemical stockpile was expended in the Iran-Iraq war or destroyed when the weapons programs were dismantled after the Persian Gulf war of 1991. But thousands of chemical shells and warheads remained, spicing the stockpile of conventional ordnance left unsecured in 2003 after Iraq’s military collapsed as the United States invaded.

Chemical munitions can resemble conventional munitions — a problem compounded by Iraq’s practice of mislabeling ordnance to confuse foreign inspectors and, with time, by rust, pitting and dirt.

These were the circumstances that combined against ordnance disposal teams as they pursued their primary duty in the war: defeating makeshift bombs.

Almost all of the bombs were made with conventional ordnance or homemade explosives. Here and there, among the others, were bombs made from chemical arms.