Ex-Iraqi Mayor Voices Chemical Concerns About Contested Oil Refinery

An Iraqi Kurdish fighter aims his weapon as he holds a position on a roof near Tuz Khurmatu on June 24, as part of an effort to repel anti-government militants from seizing an oil refinery near Baiji, roughly 85 miles to the east. The former mayor of another city northwest of Baiji worries about refinery chemicals passing into extremist hands.
National Journal
Elaine M. Grossman
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Elaine M. Grossman
July 21, 2014, 10:17 a.m.

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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