NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — The former mayor of an Iraqi city now under control of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria says he worries the extremists’ seizure of a key oil refinery could lead to a chemical disaster.
Najim Al-Jabouri, who led Tal Afar in northeastern Iraq from 2005 to 2008, said in an interview that an ongoing struggle by the anti-government jihadists to capture the Baiji facility, Iraq’s largest oil refinery, may result not only in a strategic blow to the Persian Gulf nation’s economy but also might seriously endanger Iraqi public health.
“I [am] afraid maybe they attack [and seize] the factory of oil in Baiji, near Tikrit … because this refinery has some chemical materials,” said Al-Jabouri, a former two-star general in Saddam Hussein’s army who later teamed with U.S. forces to rid his city of anti-government militants. He voiced concerns that industrial materials used in refining oil might be turned into crude chemical arms and used against Iraqis viewed as government sympathizers.
“The terrorists [do] not have any red line,” he said. “If they have chemical weapons, if they have nuclear weapons, they will use it.”
ISIS fighters captured Al-Jabouri’s former hometown, Tal Afar, located roughly 130 miles northeast of the Baiji oil facility, on June 23. He and his family have lived in the United States since late 2008.
“It breaks our hearts to see Iraq descend back into violence,” Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster — who as a colonel in 2005 led the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in retaking Tal Afar from Iraqi and foreign jihadists — said at a July 15 event at Fort Eustis.
Conflict for control over the Baiji facility broke out last month. By June 25, government forces were asserting they had secured the oil facility, but jihadists denied the claim.
Days earlier, the Islamic extremists seized a shuttered Saddam Hussein-era chemical weapons burial site at Al Muthanna. U.S. and other experts have downplayed that development, saying the materials interred there would be largely unusable as chemical arms.
The extremist Sunni rebels have already demonstrated some ruthless tactics against their enemies, though, citing instances of brutality carried out by Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki’s government that have been widely seen as intended to sideline his political foes. The result has been a steep rise in sectarianism, forcing many ordinary Iraqis to align themselves with one extreme or the other.
In one recent action, the rebels cut off the water supply to Mosul, threatening Christian residents they must convert to Islam, pay an extra tax or possibly face death, according to news reports.
Al-Jabouri speculated last week that a jihadist capture of the Baiji facility might lead to an intentional release of oil into the Tigris River, potentially making it unusable for millions of Iraqis. He noted that the ISIS militants in April set off explosions northeast of Baiji, damaging crude oil pipelines leading into the refinery and creating a massive spill into the Tigris.
Another oil spill in May from a separate refinery in Khabat — though possibly unrelated to the hostilities — polluted water in the Great Zab River, east of Erbil, leading to fears that residents’ health was at risk.
Still, it appears unlikely that the industrial substances available at the Baiji refinery could be turned into fast-acting chemical weapons, such as nerve gas or blister agent.
Many oil refineries “use caustics, acids, and catalysts, which must be handled with care,” Harold York, an energy-industry specialist at the global consultancy Wood Mackenzie, said in an emailed response to questions. “The first place I would look for potential chemical weapon devices would be an alkylation unit because they use a strong acid — sulfuric or hydrofluoric — in the process.
“However,” he said, “Baiji does not have such unit.”
Rather, the key oil refinery north of Tikrit uses a “distillate hydrocracker catalyst” to process hydrocarbons, which typically employs metal oxides like chromium or molybdenum, York said.
These substances are not covered by the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Iraq ratified in 2009. But chromium or molybdenum could pose long-term health risks to humans — if introduced into water supplies, for example — potentially causing kidney or liver damage, among other dangers.
The ISIS militants thus far have appeared far more interested in killing their enemies quickly and dramatically, said Charles Duelfer, who served as deputy of the U.N. weapons inspections team in Iraq from 2003 to 2005.
“For ISIS, it seems [their] MO is to simply kill people, perhaps torturing them first, but I just don’t see why [they] won’t kill people with the usual kinetic weapons,” he said.
The militants might be more likely to utilize commonly available chlorine — as Bashar Assad’s regime reportedly has done in Syria — to explode barrel bombs in civilian areas, he said.
That tactic, if embraced by the ISIS group, appears more apt “to cause the desired military and terror effects,” said Duelfer. In 2004, he led the Iraq Survey Group that determined no weapons of mass destruction were discovered in Iraq following the 2003 U.S. ground offensive.
At the same time, the longtime WMD expert did not rule out the possibility that extremists might someday take actions whose effects play out over a long period of time. The effect of a slow-acting chemical release might be somewhat akin to a radiological “dirty bomb,” capable of causing only limited immediate casualties but potentially contaminating an area for years.
“Iraq under Saddam produced aflatoxin, a [biological weapons] agent that makes no military sense to us since it causes liver cancer,” Duelfer said. “It might prevent a lieutenant from becoming a colonel. So the hypothesis was they wanted to modify populations. But they never admitted that.”
Al-Jabouri said ISIS militants would use any form of weapon of mass destruction they might obtain “against anyone they think is [an] enemy for them.
“So sometimes the civilian [is] the enemy for them, [sometimes] the government and the security forces [are an] enemy for them,” he added. “With anyone, they think the mere cooperation with the government, this is [their] enemy.”
Duelfer is among those who say the vintage Iraqi chemical-arms materials buried at Al Muthanna would be of little use to the ISIS fighters.
After the first Gulf War, the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq took chemical weapons materials “that we didn’t incinerate or hydrolysize in 1994, and we entombed them in these [two] very sturdily built German bunkers,” said Duelfer, who served as deputy executive chairman of the team. “The notion [was] that it was too hard to get rid of it.
“What is inside those — and we have a detailed inventory of it — tended to be barrels of leaking junk,” Duelfer explained in a phone interview last week. “It’s a toxic waste site, rather than something where you’re going to go inside and all of a sudden have your hands on a bunch of sarin [nerve agent] or munitions or something.”
He and other chemical-arms experts suggested that if ISIS militants were to enter the sealed bunkers, they would likely face considerable risk to themselves from leaky containers.
“Glibly, I thought it might be a good idea to put a sign outside the bunkers saying, ‘Free CW Inside!’” Duelfer said. “You’d take a certain number of the ISIS guys off the battlefield.”
Retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper — who as a one-star officer served with I Marine Expeditionary Force in Operation Desert Storm — downplayed the chemical risks to the Iraqi people even if the Sunni militants were to obtain such arms.
“I’m not as alarmed by chemical as I would be if they ever got a nuclear capability, [but that] doesn’t seem like it’s something that’s going to happen in the near term,” he said in an interview. “We ought to try to do what we can to preclude [chemical] usage, but there’s no guarantee.”
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