Last week, jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as ISIL or ISIS, and their Baathist partners from Saddam Hussein’s former regime took control of the Muthana Complex, the site of a massive chemical munitions stockpile dating back to the Hussein era. Located 45 miles north of Baghdad, the site was deemed safely in government hands when the U.S. military withdrew its last forces from Iraq in 2011.
The site and whatever remains of its chemical stockpiles now belong to terrorists bent on unseating the current Shia-dominated regime in Baghdad and spreading sectarian war across the region. American officials were quick to say the stockpiles are harmless and militarily unusable.
“We remain concerned about the seizure of any military site by the [ISIL],” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told The Wall Street Journal. “We do not believe that the complex contains CW materials of military value, and it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to safely move the materials.”
But there may be cause for concern from other quarters.
In the early days of the war, not long after Baghdad fell, I took a reporting trip down to the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Facility, 12 miles south of Baghdad. It was a period of intense looting around the country, and Tuwaitha was no exception.
While the Americans were trying to establish security at Iraq’s oil ministry and setting up checkpoints on Baghdad’s major thoroughfares, the villagers of Al Wardia, just outside Tuwaitha, were jumping the berms and cutting through the wire on the edge of the site by the hundreds. They came away with shiny stainless steel and plastic barrels, perhaps as many as 150, that they emptied of uranium-238 powder, otherwise known as “yellowcake.” Several highly radioactive isotropic sources were also looted in the melee.
Highly radioactive machinery that had been blasted with gamma rays disappeared, along with virtually every water faucet, door, and chair in the place. The screwworm flies that the Iraqis had been experimenting on for years—1 million in number, according to one Iraqi scientist—were seen flying around in the dust. These were the same fields where villagers later dumped much of the yellowcake.
The most intense looting went on for weeks. Poverty-stricken residents were using the barrels to store water and milk. Many people fell ill, including several small children who had been playing around the site. Some of the yellowcake had been dumped in a nearby tributary that fed into the Tigris River.
U.S. soldiers were guarding the site but not nearly enough, and they couldn’t do much against the chaos outside, so they stayed bunkered in the nuclear plant, unsure themselves if they had been exposed to anything. When American hazmat teams showed up several weeks later, they recommended that the soldiers be tested for nuclear contamination. The last time I visited the site, men in white hooded suits were scouring the grounds in vain for any more looted material. But when then–Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was asked about the looting, his message was clear: Iraqis were now a free people, and looting was their right.
In one building, identified by the Americans as Area C, the storage facility near the town of Al Wardia where the International Atomic Energy Agency mandated that all the uranium-38 was to be stored, the Americans didn’t expect to find any radioactive isotopes. So they were taken aback when they found a source emitting more than 10,000 millirads per hour—a highly lethal dose—from behind a locked door.
“Of the inventory we had, we didn’t have anything like these radioactive isotopes there,” said Col. Tim Madere, the corps chemical officer at the time. “They have found some things that weren’t on the IAEA report we had.”
The doors and windows of other buildings in the compound had been broken. Looters had climbed in through holes in the walls where the air conditioners, also looted, had been. In addition to the radioactive sources, looters got away with possibly hundreds of pounds of yellowcake.
“Nobody knows where these sources are going or what they’re going to be used for,” Dr. Hamid Muaidi Bahili, the head of the training institute for Tuwaitha's nuclear scientists, told me at the time. “If you place [Cobalt-60] somewhere, over a long time it will cause damage, long-term damage.”
When Bahili went to the site just before the looting, he saw alpha, beta, and gamma sources lying all over the ground. When he went back a few days later, before the Americans had showed up to secure the site, they had all disappeared.
A survey he conducted in Al Wardia over the next few days revealed an alarming rate of radioactivity in homes. He found high readings on children’s clothing and on beds, in their kitchens, and on their skin. The permissible dose of radiation for civilians is internationally rated at 0.02 millirad per hour. In several of the houses, he found ratings as high as 28, a near lethal dose.
“I asked ElBaradei to evacuate the site,” Bahili told me, referring to Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA chief at the time. “If this material falls into terrorist hands, it will make a disaster. These are highly dangerous materials.”
That was then, this is now, but the threat remains.