Britain was reluctant to take action to bar Saddam Hussein from expanding his chemical weapon stocks during the Iran-Iraq war after diplomats warned the UK risked criticism over its own record on control of such arms.
Previously unpublished documents from 1983 show that Margaret Thatcher’s government was keen to press for an international ban to thwart efforts by the Iraqi dictator to increase production and use of toxic agents during the protracted conflict with Iran, which cost an estimated one million lives.
But a highly-classified Foreign Office file, released at the National Archives in Kew, west London, reveals senior officials became less enthusiastic about the idea after they received American intelligence suggesting that mustard gas was being manufactured at a pesticide plant north of Baghdad using British-supplied equipment.
Diplomats were concerned that the Indian contractor which had built the factory at Samarra had acquired pumps from a UK manufacturer, Weir Pumps, without disclosing their true purpose to the company.
One FCO official warned: “Our own position on CW [chemical weapons] exports is not invulnerable.”
In the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war, it emerged that Britain had been among several western countries which were used by Iraq, often with the knowledge of intelligence services in those countries, to source both equipment and raw materials for chemical weapon manufacturing. Some 100,000 Iranians were estimated to have been killed with Iraqi chemical and nerve agents by the end of the war in 1988.
Chemical weapons were not formally banned until 1997 but in 1983 their use as a “first strike” weapon was still prohibited under the protocols of the Geneva Convention.
The use of mustard gas by Iraqi forces in 1983 and Saddam’s
plans to improve chemical warfare capabilities were described as “seriously disturbing” in London with officials proposing that Britain should be “trying at least to slow down and perhaps even frustrate Iraqi ambitions in this field”.
But the Foreign Office insisted its room for manoeuvre was limited. One paper noted: “The Iraqis could therefore legitimately say, as do the United States, that they need CW as a deterrent.
“A move to ban CW sales to Iraq would therefore look very discriminatory unless we could show that Iraq had breached, or intended to breach the Geneva Protocol.”
Diplomats were asked to assess whether it was both “feasible” and “desirable” for Britain to take unilateral action against Iraq over its use of mustard gas by potentially launching a case in the International Court.
While highlighting problems such as the lack of a clear prohibition, diplomats were also worried that any public criticism could rebound on the Thatcher government.
The paper continued: “Caution may be in order, since our own trade in CS gas has not escaped criticism. (The Russians claim that our use of CW in Northern Ireland contravened the Geneva Protocol.
The Iraq War: A timeline
The Iraq War: A timeline
1/16 11 September 2001
Terrorists belonging to al-Qaeda use hijacked aeroplanes to kill 2,996 people in attacks on the east coast of the US.
2/16 12 September 2001
Tony Blair promises George W Bush that the UK will support the US, whatever the President decides to do.
3/16 25 March 2002
Jack Straw, Foreign Secretary, warns Blair that invading Iraq would be legally dubious.
4/16 June 2002
Tony Blair asks defence officials to outline options for UK participation in military action against Iraq.
5/16 24 September 2002
The government publishes a dossier about the threat from Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. A foreword by Tony Blair states that Saddam Hussein’s “military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them”. It is subsequently alleged that this dossier was “sexed up” for political reasons.
6/16 2 October 2002
Congress authorises President Bush to use military force against Iraq.
7/16 8 November 2002
UN Security Council passes resolution 1441, insisting that weapons inspectors be allowed back into Iraq and calling on the regime to give up its WMD or face the consequences.
8/16 18 July 2003
David Kelly, an expert in biological warfare, is found dead after being named as the source of quotations used by the BBC’s Andrew Gilligan to suggest that the dossier of September 2002 had been “sexed up”. Lord Hutton is appointed to chair a judicial inquiry into his death.
9/16 13 December 2003
Saddam Hussein is captured near Tikrit, after nine months in hiding.
10/16 2 March 2004
Bombings in Baghdad and Karbala kill nearly 200 people: the worst attacks since the fall of Saddam.
11/16 14 September 2005
Bombs in Baghdad kill 160 people and injure more than 500.
12/16 30 December 2005
Saddam Hussein is executed.
13/16 28 May 2009
The last British combat troops leave Iraq.
14/16 24 November 2009
The Chilcot inquiry holds its first public hearing.
15/16 2 February 2011
The Chilcot inquiry holds its final public hearing.
16/16 21 January 2015
Sir John Chilcot confirms that his report will not be published before the general election in May 2015.
“Another relevant factor is that a British company, Weir Pumps, has apparently supplied pumps to the Samarra factory under the impression that they were for use in making pesticides.”
The documents show that senior officials came down strongly against the idea of unilateral British action but left open the idea of approaching the Americans, along with the French and Germans, about seeking a comprehensive ban on chemical agents.
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Diplomats nonetheless acknowledged that it was likely to be too late to stop Iraq from acquiring a significant chemical weapons arsenal.
The memo concluded: “It must be admitted that in the last resort we may be unable to prevent the Iraqis pressing ahead with this development.”
The words were prescient. The Iraqi dictator succeeded in dramatically increasing his chemical weapons production capacity - a development which became one of the principal justifications for the Allied invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Among the facilities built by Saddam’s regime was a £14m chlorine plant constructed in 1985 by a British company which received export credit guarantees from the Government despite a warning to ministers from a Foreign Office official that there was a “strong possibility” it would be used to manufacture mustard gas.Reuse content