The CIA, working with US troops during the US-led occupation of Iraq, repeatedly purchased rockets containing nerve agent from a secretive Iraqi seller, part of a previously undisclosed effort aimed at ensuring that old chemical weapons remaining in Iraq did not fall into the hands of terrorists or militant groups, current and former US officials said.
The extraordinary arms purchase plan, known as Operation Avarice, began in 2005 and continued into 2006, and the US military deemed it a nonproliferation success.
It led the US to acquire and destroy at least 400 Borak rockets, one of the internationally condemned chemical weapons that then-Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s Baathist government manufactured in the 1980s, but that were not accounted for by UN inspections mandated after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
The effort was run by the CIA station in Baghdad, with the US Army’s 203rd Military Intelligence Battalion and teams of chemical defense and explosive ordnance disposal troops, officials and veterans of the units said.
A New York Times investigation published in October last year found that the military had recovered thousands of old chemical warheads and shells in Iraq and that US service members and Iraqis had been wounded by them, but Washington kept much of this information secret, from the public and troops alike.
These munitions were among remnants of an Iraqi special weapons program that was abandoned long before the 2003 invasion that turned up sporadically during the US occupation in buried caches, as part of improvised bombs or on black markets.
The potency of sarin samples from the purchases and tightly held assessments about risks the munitions posed buttress veterans’ claims that the US military did not share important intelligence about battlefield perils with those at risk or maintain an adequate medical system for treating victims of chemical exposure.
The purchases were made from a sole Iraqi source who was eager to sell, officials said. How much the US paid for the rockets is not publicly known; neither are the affiliations of the seller.
Most of the officials and veterans who spoke about the program did so anonymously because, they said, the details remain classified.
The CIA declined to comment. The Pentagon, citing continuing secrecy about the effort, did not answer written questions and acknowledged its role only obliquely.
“Without speaking to any specific programs, it is fair to say that together with our coalition partners in Iraq, the US military worked diligently to find and remove weapons that could be used against our troops and the Iraqi people,” Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said in a written statement.
Retired Army Lieutenant General Richard Zahner, the top US military intelligence officer in Iraq in 2005 and 2006, said that he did not know of any other intelligence program as successful in reducing the chemical weapons that remained in Iraq after the invasion.
Through the CIA’s purchases, hundreds of weapons with potential use for terrorists were quietly taken off the market, Zahner said.
“This was a timely and effective initiative by our national intelligence partners that negated the use of these unique munitions,” he said.
Not long after Operation Avarice had secured its 400th rocket, in 2006, US troops were exposed several times to other chemical weapons. Many of these veterans said that they had not been warned by their units about the risks posed by the chemical weapons and that their medical care and follow-up were substandard, in part because military doctors seemed unaware that chemical munitions remained in Iraq.
In some cases, victims of exposure said, officers forbade them to discuss what had occurred. The Pentagon now says that hundreds of other veterans reported on health screening forms that they believed that they too had been exposed during the war.
The US believed the weapons came from near Amarah, a city not far from Iran.
Neither the CIA nor the soldiers persuaded the man to reveal his source of supply, the officials said. “They were pushing to see where did it originate from, was there a mother lode?” Zahner said.
Eventually, a veteran familiar with the purchases said, “the guy was getting a little cocky.”
At least once he scammed his handlers, selling rockets filled with something other than sarin.
Then in 2006, the veteran said, the Iraqi drove a truckload of warheads to Baghdad and “called the [CIA] guys to tell them he was going to turn them over to the insurgents unless they picked them up.”
Not long after that, the veteran said, the relationship appeared to dry up, ending purchases that had ensured that “a lot of chemical weapons were destroyed.”
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