On the eve of Chilcot Report, questions raised over payments to warlord for Sarin
By Nick Kochan and David Hencke | 5 July 2016
On the eve of Sir John Chilcot’s report into the 2003 Iraq war, Exaro has seen documents revealing UK-US reluctance to publish fresh details of operations to obtain and destroy more than 35 tonnes of chemical weapons following the removal of Saddam Hussein.
Information on the operations – designed to keep canisters containing Sarin, a deadly nerve agent, off the black market – was first published by the US media.
But a request sent to the Ministry of Defence under the Freedom of Information Act reveals that the US was consulted on the further disclosure of information on chemical weapons destructions by British and American forces between 2005 and 2006.
A source with direct knowledge of the operations told Exaro that most of the chemical weapons were obtained through payments made by the CIA to a local Iraqi warlord.
US officials have never revealed the identity of the individual who sold them chemical weapons, many of which were degraded and dated back to the Iran-Iraq war.
While the motives behind the US payments are described as “altruistic”, the source explained, the fear is that the cash was used to purchase arms eventually used by the Mahdi militia to attack coalition troops.
“It is possible that western forces were killed by Mahdi army funded by the CIA. Nobody ever identified what happened to the [US] money and what it was used for,” the source claimed.
“The only people who could have moved those sorts of things around that area were involved in many nefarious activities.”
FOI requests for details of three operations – the British-led Operations Bedouin I and II, and the CIA-led Operation Avarice – forced the US and British authorities to release redacted materials in 2015.
More complex chemical weapons operations, such as Avarice, required the co-operation of American and British forces, but the Bedouin operations were handled exclusively by the British.
In 2015, the New York Times reported details of covert operations that involved the CIA, US military intelligence and the British Army. These included Operation Avarice.
A request for further details sent to the MoD revealed British “consultation with the US authorities” over whether to release additional information on chemical weapons finds.
After months of deliberations, the MoD said it could not disclose new details. The MoD said that while there was a public interest in releasing some information, sensitive “operational procedures and processes” should remain secret.
There is no evidence that the chemical weapons found inside Iraq after 2003 were there when United Nations inspectors scoured the country for “weapons of mass destruction” before the war.
However, the latest revelations cast new light on a controversial period in Britain’s recent political and military history.
The seven-year Chilcot Inquiry, also known as the Iraq Inquiry, will publish its findings tomorrow (July 6). Sir John’s report is expected to assess key decisions made by British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government before, during and after the war.
Blair’s government was widely criticized for taking the UK into a conflict following claims that Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime still possessed significant “weapons of mass destruction”.
But it is not clear whether Sir John’s report will contain fresh details of the Avarice and Bedouin operations.
According to MoD documents released in August 2015, twenty-one canisters containing Sarin were moved and destroyed by British Army units during two operations in south-eastern Iraq.
The Operation Bedouin destructions took place deep inside the British-controlled area close to the city of Al Amara, which is around 160km north of Basra.
MoD documents confirm that the canisters were destroyed at a site which had already been used to dispose of other chemical weapons.
The first Bedouin operation took place in January 2006, when 16 “suspicious” canisters were taken from two Iraqis seen unloading items from the back of a truck into a house.
MoD documents state: ‘One was released immediately. The second was subsequently detained by the Serious Crime Unit and the canisters confiscated’.
The recovered items were 122mm Al Boraq canisters. British documents describe the canisters as ‘similar to those destroyed during previous iterations of Operation xxxxxxx. And therefore possibly containing a GB (Sarin) fill.’
An Exaro source said the redacted name is believed to be Operation Avarice, which began in 2005 and involved the US-led acquisition of chemical weapons from the Iraqi warlord.
Under Avarice, the CIA reportedly paid the un-named individual for at least 400 canisters of chemical weapons.
American documents show that almost 3,500 weapons were recovered during the Operation Avarice period.
The British Army’s destruction of some chemical weapons is described in a “Chemical, Biological, Radioactive, Nuclear (CBRN) Site Recce Report” released by the MoD.
According to the report, a military helicopter carried boxes containing the chemicals to the destruction site.
The report states: “At 1621hrs, all canisters were moved to destruction pit by the Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) detachment. All personnel were moved to the firing point on the cordon [2,000 metres from the destruction site] and the explosive demolition was initiated successfully at 1650hrs.”
Five more 122 Al Boraq canisters were destroyed by British troops in May 2006.
Julian Lewis, chair of the Commons defence committee, said he was mystified by the Blair government’s decision not to publicise the operations. “Surely if these weapons had been discovered by the Blair government at the time they would have shouted it from the rooftops?”