Iraq WMD Timeline: How the Mystery Unraveled

U.N. inspectors deplane in Iraq in Nov. 2002. Credit: Mark Gwozdecky-IAEA.

hide captionUnited Nations inspectors return to Iraq in 2002 to resume the search for banned weapons. Their return came after a four-year absence from the country precipitated by Operation Desert Fox. They left again in 2003, ahead of the U.S.-led invasion.

Mark Gwozdecky/IAEA

Iraq's history with chemical, biological and nuclear weapons is a long and winding path that eventually ended in an American invasion of the country.

Related Iraq Timelines

In between Saddam Hussein's rise and fall from power, Iraq developed and used so-called weapons of mass destruction (WMD). It also reluctantly submitted to international inspections and destroyed its stockpiles and means of WMD production.

In the end, though, the government's opaque and obstinate nature made it difficult for outsiders to tell exactly what Iraq was doing, if anything, in the realm of WMD.

Saddam Becomes President ::: July 16, 1979
Saddam Hussein becomes president of Iraq after pushing his cousin Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr to resign.

Iran-Iraq War Begins ::: Sept. 22, 1980
Iraq invades Iran, beginning a war that ends in stalemate eight years later.

Israel Attacks ::: June 7, 1981
Israeli warplanes make a surprise attack on the French-built Osirak nuclear reactor near Baghdad. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin says that his country had to act before Iraq could successfully build a nuclear weapon to use against the Jewish state. Saddam Hussein's Iraqi government says the reactor was not part of a plan to build nuclear weapons.

Chemical Attacks on Iran ::: 1983
Media reports describe Iraqi use of chemical weapons against Iranian forces. Mustard gas is the first weapon used. In 1984 reports say Iraq uses the nerve agent Tabun.

Gassing the Kurds ::: March 1988
Iraq uses chemical weapons against its own population during an attack on the rebellious Kurdish city of Halabja.

Invading Kuwait ::: Aug. 2, 1990
Iraq invades Kuwait, easily overwhelming its tiny neighbor.

Resolution 687 Bans Iraq WMD ::: April 3, 1991
Shortly after Iraq is ejected from Kuwait by an international military coalition, the United Nations Security Council passes its first resolution addressing Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in Iraq. Resolution 687 states that Iraq must destroy its presumed stockpile of WMD, and the means to produce them. It also limits the country's ballistic missile capability. The U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) is established to oversee the inspection, destruction and monitoring of chemical and biological weapons. The International Atomic Energy Agency is asked to document and destroy Iraqi efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Iraq accepts the resolution three days later, agreeing to disclose the extent of its WMD program to inspectors.

Unilateral Destruction ::: Summer 1991
Iraq unilaterally destroys WMD equipment and documentation in an effort at concealment of pre-war work.

Resolution 715 Demands Compliance ::: Oct. 11, 1991
Responding to Iraq's consistent efforts to interrupt or block inspection teams, the U.N. Security Council passes Resolution 715. The resolution says Iraq must "accept unconditionally the inspectors and all other personnel designated by the Special Commission".

'Defensive' Biological Weapons ::: May 1992
Iraq officially admits to having had a "defensive" biological weapons program. Weeks later, UNSCOM begins the destruction of Iraq's chemical weapons program. Progress is halted in July when Iraq refuses an inspection team access to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Denial and Acceptance ::: 1993
Inspections are again held up when Iraq attempts to deny UNSCOM and the IAEA the use of their own aircraft in Iraq. In late 1993 Iraq accepts resolution 715.

Nuclear, Chemical Weapons Programs Destroyed ::: 1994
UNSCOM completes the destruction of Iraq's known chemical weapons and production equipment. IAEA teams largely complete their mandate to neutralize Iraq's nuclear program, including the destruction of facilities Iraq had not even declared to inspectors.

Defection and Revelation ::: Aug. 8, 1995
Hussein Kamel, the former director of Iraq's Military Industrialization Corporation, responsible for all WMD programs, defects to Jordan. As a result, Iraq admits to a far more developed biological weapons programs than it had previously disclosed. Saddam Hussein's government also hands over documents related to its nuclear weapons program and admits to the attempted recovery of highly-enriched uranium.

Al-Hakam Destroyed ::: May 1996
Iraq's main facility for the production of biological weapons, Al-Hakam, is destroyed through explosive demolition supervised by UNSCOM inspectors.

The Fight Against Proliferation ::: 1997
The Additional Protocol is added to the global Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), giving IAEA inspectors more authority to investigate programs in member states. The protocol is in response to the realization that Iraq — a NPT signatory — had been able to move swiftly and covertly toward the construction of a nuclear weapon in the late 1980s under the treaty's previous safeguards. Inspections in the 1990s revealed that Iraq was much closer to building a nuclear weapon in the 1980s than had been suspected by IAEA officials.

Resolution 1115 ::: June 1997
In another effort to end Iraq's interference with inspection teams, the U.N. Security Council passes Resolution 1115. The resolution again calls for Iraq to comply with all previous resolutions regarding WMD. By the end of 1997, a diplomatic stalemate forces UNSCOM to withdraw most of its staff from Iraq.

Memorandum of Understanding ::: Feb. 20-23, 1998
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan visits Iraq in an effort secure inspections of what Iraq terms "presidential sites." The U.N. and Iraq agree to support the terms of the newly drafted "Memorandum of Understanding." The Memorandum secures UNSCOM access to eight previously off-limits presidential sites.

Operation Desert Fox ::: 1998
Cooperation ends between Iraq and inspectors when the country demands the lifting of the U.N. oil embargo. UNSCOM and the IAEA pull their staffs out of Iraq in anticipation of a US-led air raid on Iraqi military targets. The four-day military offensive known as Operation Desert Fox begins on December 16, 1998. According to a U.S. military Web site, the mission of Desert Fox was "to strike military and security targets in Iraq that contribute to Iraq's ability to produce, store, maintain and deliver weapons of mass destruction." The operation is considered a success, largely finishing off what was left of Iraq' s WMD infrastructure.

From UNSCOM to UNMOVIC ::: Dec. 17, 1999
The U.N. Security Council passes Resolution 1284, replacing UNSCOM with the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC). Hans Blix of Sweden is named to head the organization. UNMOVIC's staff are employees of the United Nations. UNSCOM's staff had been experts on loan from U.N.-member countries, calling into question the motives of individual team members.

World Trade Center Attacks ::: Sept. 11, 2001
Terrorists attack New York City and Washington, D.C., with passenger jets, radically altering America's view of national security issues.

'Axis of Evil' ::: Jan. 29, 2002
President Bush accuses Iraq of being part of an international "axis if evil" during his State of the Union address. Bush tells Congress:
"Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror. The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax and nerve gas and nuclear weapons for over a decade … This is a regime that has something to hide from the civilized world."

'A Grave and Gathering Danger' ::: Sept. 12, 2002
President Bush accuses Iraq of failing to live up to its obligations to the U.N. during an address to the General Assembly. Bush tells the U.N.:
"We know that Saddam Hussein pursued weapons of mass murder even when inspectors were in his country. Are we to assume that he stopped when they left? The history, the logic, and the facts lead to one conclusion: Saddam Hussein's regime is a grave and gathering danger."

'Material Breach' ::: Nov. 8, 2002
U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441 says Iraq "remains in material breach of its obligations" under various U.N. resolutions and gives the country "a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament" commitments.

The U.N. Moves Back In ::: Nov. 27, 2002
UNMOVIC and IAEA inspections begin again in Iraq, almost four years after the departure of inspectors prior to Operation Desert Fox.

Recycled Material ::: Dec. 7, 2002
Iraq delivers a 12,000-page WMD report to the U.N. in response to Resolution 1441. U.N. chief inspector Hans Blix says the information provided by Iraq is largely recycled material.

No 'Smoking Guns' ::: Jan. 9, 2003
UNMOVIC's Hans Blix and the IAEA's Director General Mohamed ElBaradei report their findings to the U.N. Security Council. Blix says inspectors have not found any "smoking guns" in Iraq. ElBaradei reports that aluminum tubes suspected by the U.S. to be components for uranium enrichment are more likely to be parts for rockets, as the Iraqis claim. John Negroponte, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., says:
"There is still no evidence that Iraq has fundamentally changed its approach from one of deceit to a genuine attempt to be forthcoming in meeting the council's demand that it disarm."

Sixteen Words ::: Jan. 28, 2003
In his State of the Union address, President Bush continues to view Iraq is a WMD threat. He makes a statement that implies Iraq is trying to develop nuclear weapons. Bush says:
"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
It comes to light later that the president based his statement on discredited intelligence.

Powell's U.N. Appearance ::: Feb. 5, 2003
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell goes in person to the U.N. to make the case against Iraq. Citing evidence obtained by American intelligence, he tells the U.N. that Iraq has failed "to come clean and disarm." Powell adds:
"My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence."

The Burden is on Iraq ::: Feb. 14, 2003
The IAEA's ElBaradei and chief weapons inspector Blix report to the U.N. Security Council on Iraqi cooperation in the search for WMD. They say they have not discovered any biological, chemical or nuclear weapons activities. Proscribed missile programs are discovered and disabled. Blix does express frustration with Iraq's failure to account for its vast stores of chemical and biological agents it was known to have at one point. Blix says:
"This is perhaps the most important problem we are facing. Although I can understand that it may not be easy for Iraq in all cases to provide the evidence needed, it is not the task of the inspectors to find it."

U.S. vs. U.N. ::: March 6-7, 2003
The night before Blix and ElBaradei are to report on inspection efforts in Iraq, President Bush gives a news conference in which he again says Iraq is hiding something. Bush says:
"These are not the actions of a regime that is disarming. These are the actions of a regime engaged in a willful charade. These are the actions of a regime that systematically and deliberately is defying the world."

Blix tells the U.N. the next day:
"Intelligence authorities have claimed that weapons of mass destruction are moved around Iraq by trucks, in particular that there are mobile production units for biological weapons … [But] no evidence of proscribed activities have so far been found."

Appearing with Blix, ElBaradei tells the U.N. that the IAEA has concluded that documents appearing to show Iraq shopping for uranium in Niger are, in fact, forgeries.

Invading Iraq ::: March 20, 2003
The U.S. military and other members of an American-led coalition invade Iraq. Baghdad falls on April 9. President Bush declares an end to major combat operations on May 1. Shortly afterward, the Pentagon announces formation of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) to search for WMD.

A Different Niger Story ::: July 6, 2003
Former diplomat Joseph C. Wilson questions the Bush Administration's use of intelligence about Iraqi WMD programs with an opinion piece in the New York Times titled "What I Didn't Find in Africa." Wilson says he was sent to Africa by the CIA to investigate claims that Iraq had tried to buy uranium ore in Niger. He reports that he didn't find any evidence of Iraq attempting to procure uranium in Niger, contradicting regular statements from the White House that Saddam Hussein was after the radioactive material there.

Tenet Takes the Blame ::: July 11, 2003
Director George Tenet says that the CIA should not have allowed the president to say in his State of the Union address that Iraq was trying to procure uranium in Africa. Deputy National Security Adviser Steve Hadley also accepts responsibility for failing to stop the president from using the information. Tenet says:
"These 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the President."

Novak Unmasks a CIA Agent ::: July 14, 2003
Robert Novak, in his syndicated commentary, reveals that Joseph Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, is a CIA operative. Novak attributes the information to "two senior administration officials."

No Weapons Found ::: Oct. 2, 2003
After three months of looking, Iraq Survey Group (ISG) inspector David Kay tells Congress in an interim report that his American team of weapons inspectors has yet to find any evidence of WMD. Kay says:
"We have not yet found stocks of weapons, but we are not yet at the point where we can say definitively either that such weapon stocks do not exist, or that they existed before the war."

Kay Resigns ::: Jan. 23, 2004
David Kay resigns as head of the ISG. CIA Director George Tenet names Charles Duelfer to replace Kay, whose team failed to find evidence of active WMD production or stockpiles. Kay tells NPR:
"My summary view, based on what I've seen, is that we are very unlikely to find large stockpiles of weapons. I don't think they exist."

Bush Responds to Kay ::: Feb. 3, 2004
With David Kay saying that he didn't believe WMD existed in Iraq, President Bush reiterates his belief that Saddam Hussein was dangerous. Bush says:
"We know from years of intelligence, not only our own intelligence services, but other intelligence-gathering organizations, that he had weapons. After all, he used them."

Hutton Inquiry ::: Feb. 4, 2004
The Hutton Inquiry into allegations from the BBC that the British government had hyped WMD intelligence reports before the war with Iraq finds no basis for the allegations. Tony Blair says:
"The allegation that I or anyone else lied to this House or deliberately misled the country by falsifying intelligence on weapons of mass destruction is itself the real lie."

Senate Intelligence Report ::: July 9, 2004
The Report of the Select Committee on Intelligence on the U.S. Intelligence Community's Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq is released. It faults America's ability to gauge Iraq's capabilities before the war. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) says:
"Before the war, the U.S. intelligence community told the president, as well as the Congress, that Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, and if left unchecked, would probably have a nuclear weapon during this decade. Well, today we know these assessments were wrong. They were also unreasonable and largely unsupported by the available intelligence."

Britain's Butler Report ::: July 14, 2004
Britain releases the Butler Report, which concludes that Iraq did not have significant, if any, stocks of chemical or biological weapons ready for deployment. Blair responds to the report:
"On any basis, he [Saddam Hussein] retained complete strategic intent on weapons of mass destruction, and significant capability. The only reason he ever let the inspectors back into Iraq was that he had 180,000 U.S. and British troops on his doorstep. He had no intention of ever cooperating fully with the inspectors."

No Weapons Found ::: Sept. 30 - Oct. 6, 2004
The ISG releases its final report and chief inspector Charles Duelfer testifies before congress about his team's findings. After 16 months of investigation, Duelfer concludes that Saddam Hussein had no chemical weapons, no biological weapons and no capacity to make nuclear weapons. This effectively ends the hunt for WMD. Bush responds to the report:
"The Duelfer report showed that Saddam was systematically gaming the system, using the UN oil-for-food program to try to influence countries and companies in an effort to undermine sanctions. He was doing so with the intent of restarting his weapons program once the world looked away."

The Hunt is Over ::: Jan. 12, 2005
White House spokesman Scott McClellan tells reporters that the "physical search" for WMD, having found no weapons, is over.

Robb-Silberman Report ::: March 31, 2005
The Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction delivers its report to the president. Commonly known as the Robb-Silberman report — in reference to the commission's co-chairmen — the document describes the failure to find WMD in Iraq as one of the "most public — and most damaging — intelligence failures in recent American history." The report, which was commissioned by President Bush, asks what went wrong and conlcudes that wide-ranging reform of the intelligence bureaucracy is needed to guard against global WMD threats.

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Timeline compiled and produced by Wright Bryan, with additional research by Douglas Hopper.

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