Even before the current confrontation in the Gulf, Iraq was an extremely militarized country, preoccupied with internal and external “security threats. ” When I traveled to Iraq in early 1990, I was struck by the extent of militarization in parts of the country. The whole of Iraqi Kurdistan was covered by a net of military and paramilitary installations. It was difficult to drive or walk more than a few hundred yards without seeing or being seen by soldiers in an outpost, or in a military installation of considerable size. Traveling south of Basra, I found the Fao peninsula completely honeycombed with military camps. In the Umm Qasr area, security was so tight that I was not even allowed to get out of the car, much less to take pictures.

Internal conflicts have been the primary factor underlying Iraq’s preoccupation with “ security.” The Kurdish northeastern part of the country has been the scene of an on-and-off insurgency for decades, sometimes supported by Iran and other outside powers. [1] After the Islamic revolution of 1979, Iran tried to mobilize Iraq’s majority Shi‘i population against Saddam Hussein’s regime, with little success.

The second factor is the regional environment. On Iraq’s eastern borders, Iran has three times as many people and represents a contending force for regional domination. To the west, Syria is ruled by a rival faction of the Baath Party. With Turkey, its northern neighbor, Iraq has recently cooperated militarily against Kurdish insurgents. But Turkey, a member of NATO, has supported the United States during the current crisis, and earlier in 1990 Turkey temporarily halted the flow of Euphrates river water into Iraq. Finally, on the regional level the main threat in Iraq’s eyes is Israel, a view reinforced by Israel’s 1981 bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor construction site. [2]

Taken together, the internal and regional environment appeared very dangerous to Baghdad. Deputy Foreign Minister Nizar Hamdoun and other Iraqi officials stressed this point in discussions I had with them in Baghdad. Even if one has no sympathies for Baathist practices, this perception has to be taken into account.

But this is only half the picture. Iraq may feel threatened, but its leaders are aggressively pursuing policies which threaten some of their neighbors. The Iraqi leadership is determined to turn their country into a power in the Gulf area and to assume a leadership role in the Arab world. [3] The first decade of Baathist power, from 1968 to 1979, laid down the political and material preconditions: consolidation of the regime, construction of a modern infrastructure and a military buildup. This phase concluded with Saddam’s formal assumption of the presidency in 1979.

The next step was Iraq’s attack against Iran in September 1980. The eight-year war in the Persian Gulf was crucial to Iraq’s becoming a leading power in the region. After two years of recovery from the war and additional weapons acquisitions, Iraq undertook its next move: invasion of Kuwait.

Decisive Experience

The Gulf war was a decisive experience for Iraq’s society and for its armed forces. The size of the armed forces grew considerably during the war, from 242,000 in 1980 to about one million in 1988. [4] This number of one million somewhat overstates Iraq’s military power, for it includes some half a million reservists, including older men and untrained youngsters. The remaining armed forces also fall into two categories. The first are regular units who have some fighting experience but are likely inferior to US troops. The core of Iraq’s army is the Republican (or Presidential) Guard, some 140,000 men who were decisive in the war with Iran, have been trained to take the offensive, and will be a match for US forces.

Over the past decade, Iraq’s armed forces have acquired a much higher degree of professionalism, and new and more modern weapons they did not have in the early 1980s. Most of these changes occurred not by design but grew out of the necessities of war. Iraq needed to compensate for its deficits in military leadership and numbers with a much higher level of weapons technology.

Iraq’s acquisition and application of modern technology to the war effort took two tracks. One was to import sophisticated weapons and skills from the USSR and the West. From 1980 to 1989, Iraq imported more than $25 billion in major weapons systems, and the total bill for all weapons procurement may have been as high as $80 billion for the decade in current prices — more than France ($68.6 billion), Britain ($69.5 billion) or West Germany ($41.3 billion). [5]

The second track was to build up Iraq’s domestic arms and military industries. Beginning around 1984 and with the help of investment advisers in Switzerland, France and England, Baghdad bought into “foreign companies specializing in technology and machinery with potential military application.” After the Gulf war, Baghdad invested $20 billion in this enterprise, which was concentrated in the Military Production Authority of the Ministry of Industry and Military Industries, headed by Husayn Kamil, a son-in-law of President Saddam Hussein. [6] This effort also depended on foreign suppliers and technicians. The deals typically involved a number of companies from several different countries whose activities were known to Western intelligence agencies. One Kuwaiti official, speaking of Iraq’s practice of using false end-user documents, said Kuwait’s embassy in Washington regularly filed certificates for US-made equipment: “Of course, the stuff was going direct to Iraq, and everybody knew it — your government and mine.” [7]

While the Soviet Union has been Iraq’s largest military supplier by a wide margin, France has been of special importance in the transfer of military technology. Much less significant in scale, but crucial in the development of weapons of mass destruction, is Germany. This crash program to acquire ballistic missile and chemical weapons production capacity is the focus of this article.

The Missile Program

At the start of the war with Iran, Iraq possessed artillery rockets from the Soviet Union, Brazil and Yugoslavia, which it began to modify and upgrade with foreign help. This upgrading resulted in the Laith (with a range of 90 kilometers, based on the Soviet FROG-7), the Ababil (ranges of 50 and 100 km, based on the Yugoslav M-87), and various versions of the Sajil (based on the Brazilian Astros II). [8]

What was of greater importance was the use and development of ballistic missiles. During the Gulf war both Iran and Iraq had Soviet Scud B missiles, with a range of 280 km. Iraq’s problem was that its capital, Baghdad, was located relatively close to the Iranian border, while Iran’s capital Tehran was much further inland. As a result Iran could (and in 1986 did) attack Baghdad using Scud Bs supplied by Libya, while Iraq could not hit Tehran. Therefore Iraq began to upgrade its Soviet-supplied Scuds; the modified missile was called al-Husayn. By enlarging the fuel tanks, Iraqi weapons designers more than doubled its range (up to 600 km), and improved its accuracy. In February 1988, the “war of the cities” started. During the next seven weeks, Iraq fired 189 of its al-Husayn missiles on Iranian cities, forcing Iran to stop hitting Iraqi cities with its Scuds. [9]

This missile upgrading occurred with help from German, French and probably Brazilian and other technicians. In April 1988, Iraq successfully tested an upgraded version of al-Husayn, called al-‘Abbas. This missile now boasted a range of up to 850 km. Iraqi sources claim to have raised the level of accuracy for the al-‘Abbas to 0.03 percent of range (or 300 meters), which would be ten times better than the Scud. [10]

In December 1989 Iraq announced that it had developed and tested two different missiles with a range of about 2,000 km: the satellite launch missile al-‘Abid and the ballistic missile Tammuz 1. [11] With regard to warheads, the modified versions of the Scud carry smaller payloads than the originals. There are some reports, but no firm evidence, that for its Laith 90 and al-Husayn missiles Iraq has developed chemical warheads. [12]

Chemical Weapons

During the Gulf war both Iraq and Iran used chemical weapons. Iraq has integrated chemical weapons fully in its military doctrine, particularly for situations when it is on the defensive. While Iraq’s chemical weapons capacities are much less developed than those of the US or Western Europe, by one account “Iraq now has the largest, and possibly the most sophisticated chemical weapons program in the Third World.” [13] An estimate based on partial information puts Iraq’s yearly production at more than 3,300, and possibly as much as 13,200, tons. [14] Today, Iraq’s industrial base can produce nearly all of the chemical substances needed to manufacture mustard gas, and is close to self-sufficiency in production of this relatively primitive chemical agent, which blisters and burns and can kill in conditions of heavy exposure. Nerve gases are much more lethal, and kill within minutes by disrupting nerve impulses and paralyzing the lungs. With regard to those nerve gases known as sarin and tabun, there are strong indications that Iraq not only used them during the war but has started to produce them itself. The main production facility is located in Samarra’, and may have become operational as early as 1984. [15] Since then the program has been expanded and now also includes production of phosphorus oxychloride and phosphorus trichloride, two key precursor chemicals for tabun production, at a plant near Falluja. [16] West Germany has been Iraq’s prime supplier of expertise and technology for the development and production in the field of weapons of mass destruction. One of the most notorious West German companies in the Iraq business is Water Engineering Trading (WET). This enterprise has sold at least 58 tons of precursor chemicals for production of the nerve gas tabun to Iraq. In 1986 it exported machinery for poison gas production to Falluja. Daily production was planned at 17.6 tons. [17] WET also delivered machinery for producing 122 mm caliber poison gas grenades. [18] The same company helped equip Iraq’s biological warfare research program, sending installations to Salman Pak and Samarra’.

WET was not an isolated case. Germany was also the source of 200 milligrams of T-2 and HT-2 mycotoxins sold to Iraq in 1986. [19] Pilot Plant, a company based in the West German town of Dreieich, built six chemical factories in Iraq, including Samarra, all of which have chemical weapons potential or produce precursor chemicals. At least one of these, built since 1981, has been described as a poison gas factory. [20] The H+H Metalform company from Drensteinfurt has helped Iraq in nuclear technology and with its missile development and production. In 1987 this same company offered to sell special tanks to Iraq that could be used to drop chemical weapons from airplanes. [21]

There is a perceptible division of labor among German companies exporting weapons or military-related technologies to Iraq (and other Third World countries as well). The more flagrant aspects of the business are carried out by relatively small and not particularly prominent firms such as those mentioned above. A good example is Iraq’s Saad 16 military complex, near Mosul. This complex, officially connected to the University of Mosul, includes development facilities for missiles and chemical weapons, test installations for a “supergun,” an electronics laboratory, wind tunnels and underground firing ranges. The main contractor is the West German firm Gildemeister Projecta of Bielefeld, while the main supplier of technology is Messerschmitt-Bolkow-Blohm (MBB) of Ottobrunn/Munich.[22] MBB is a key German arms and high-technology manufacturer, and a contractor to the US Department of Defense, among many others. MBB is now owned by Daimler-Benz. (Kuwait owns 14 percent of Daimler-Benz.)

Prestigious companies like MBB or Degussa (also involved in Samarra) are crucial to the whole enterprise but, as Der Spiegel notes, they very carefully “never make an appearance. Whether with rocket projects or the superbomb for Iraq, MBB only researches and develops; the murderous hardware itself is sent by NATO allies to foreign countries. The dirty work in Iraq is mainly done by firms which are run by former MBB people; the company itself remains outwardly clean.” [23]

There are various ways of doing this. In some cases, arms are exported to another country, such as France, and then reexported to Germany. MBB exported BK-116 and BO-105 helicopters to Iraq using US, British or Spanish intermediaries. Another technique is for MBB employees to leave and set up new firms with the contacts and technology originally developed by MBB. A third technique is to co-produce weapons with a foreign company that is not under the same restrictions as companies in Germany. Iraq has bought 5,000 HOT anti-tank missiles and 166 launchers, plus more than 4,500 Milan missiles. In addition, Iraq ordered 1050 Roland anti-aircraft missiles. This arms trade, which would be illegal in Germany, was carried out through the France-based Euromissile company, which is 50 percent owned by MBB. [24]

MBB also helped develop a new and extremely powerful weapons system for Egypt, the Fuel Air Explosive (FAE). Officially MBB withdrew from the project in 1988, but Egypt passed the technology in its entirety on to Baghdad. [25] Iraq may be the first Third World country to possess an FAE bomb, though China, Israel, the US, the Soviet Union and France also have FAE programs. [26]

What Did Bonn Know?

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Iraq’s military buildup during and after the Gulf war would not have been possible without outside assistance. This applies primarily to strategic research and development of missiles and chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Precisely in these fields West German companies have played a key role. Was the German government aware of the deals that contributed to Iraq’s rise to a regional superpower status?

The evidence is compelling that the German government was not only well informed but even involved. During the first five weeks after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the West German foreign intelligence agency, the BND, brought to the attention of the authorities no less than 30 instances of dubious arms exports to Iraq. The CIA, and the British and Australian intelligence agencies also approached Bonn with information. [27]

But BND knowledge extends further back than these recent events. At least three of the businessmen arrested recently for selling chemical weapons components and other sensitive material to Iraq were at one time on the BND payroll. Peter Leifer, manager of the notorious Water Engineering Trading, has been a BND agent since 1986. Other WET employees also seem to have been involved, as was a German-Iraqi named al-Kadhi. [28] It is difficult to believe that German intelligence was unaware of what its agents were doing with regard to Iraq. One cannot dismiss the possibility that WET was itself a kind of front for the BND.

MBB, moreover, is not only an important company; before it was purchased by Daimler-Benz it was effectively controlled by the state government of Bavaria (itself controlled by the Christian Social Union party which plays an important role in the federal German government). Daimler-Benz is now the majority owner, but the state of Bavaria still holds a minority interest. The export of highly sensitive MBB products to Iraq without the knowledge of the MBB owners — including representatives of the state of Kuwait — is difficult to imagine. And the fact that the authorities have prosecuted some minor companies while MBB has always received special treatment and even political protection is not without significance.

In 1981, Bonn-based Friedrich-Simon Heiner, manager of the Inwako company, recruited Ludwig Heerwagen from Germany’s elite GSG-9 counter-terrorism unit to form and train Iraqi special forces units “to fight terrorism inside Iraq” — meaning, probably, the Kurdish insurgency. [29] Could this have happened without government knowledge and consent? The same businessman was later reported to be involved in upgrading the Iraqi Scud B missiles and in delivery of centrifuges for the enrichment of uranium gas. The German government has long protested that it had no information about such deals. But even from the private sector there have been warnings since at least January 1982. Joachim Schulz, chief of the Frankfurt-based consulting company CEM, which had been asked by Kolb Company to sell technical expertise to Iraq, declined to cooperate on the grounds that, in Schulz’s words, “I do not have any doubt that the goal is to produce nerve gas.” [30]

Western policy toward Iraq needs to address the legitimate security concerns of that country and the whole region. The current crisis has something to do with the tendency of Western countries to utilize Iraq for their own, Western, purposes. Both the US and France have tried to use Baghdad against Tehran. Bonn has ruthlessly tried to strike deals both for economic reasons and to buy influence in the region. By the end of the Gulf war, most of the outside powers were firmly on Iraq’s side. Only Bonn tried to avoid this, thinking it more useful to keep the lines of communication open to Iran and to keep exporting to both sides.

One important question is just how embargo-proof Iraq’s military industries are today. Jane’s Soviet Intelligence Review wrote in October 1990 that the country is “virtually self-sufficient in a number of key areas, including small arms, mortars, artillery, rockets and tank ammunition, as well as fuses, communications equipment and optical devices such as gunsights.” [31] An exiled Iraqi financier, on the other hand, told the Washington Post that Saddam “has no real industry to speak of, no raw materials; he can’t make his own steel. He still has to import every single component. What he really owns is a huge weapons assembly industry, not an independent weapons industry.” [32] According to a Der Spiegel report in late November 1990, Saddam’s foreign helpers may still have been working in Iraq quite recently. “In nearly all important military production factories,” writes the German weekly, “production continues with foreign assistance.” This includes, at least through early November, chemical weapons production at Samarra’. The foreigners involved include German nationals who are not hostages but maintain privileged status with Iraqi authorities. [33]

The strategy of using Iraq for non-Iraqi purposes meant looking the other way when Iraq was aggressive or repressive. In the end, Saddam Hussein managed to use the Western powers (and the Soviet Union) for his own purposes. By accepting their political support during the war, and importing their weapons and military know-how, Iraq fought Iran to a draw and assumed a new degree of regional leadership. Saddam’s policies were plainly Iraqi nationalist. What were supposed to be tools of Western influence have been employed now against Western interests.


[1] Fred Halliday, “Iraq and its Neighbors: The Cycles of Insecurity,” World Today (London) (June 1990), p. 104.
[2] Stephen C. Pelletiere, Douglas V. Johnson II and Leif R. Rosenberger, Iraqi Power and US Security in the Middle East (Washington, DC: Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, 1990), p. 45.
[3] See Samir al-Khalil, Republic of Fear (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1989).
[4] Dilip Hiro, The Longest War: The Iran-Iraq Military Conflict (London, 1990), Annex II, compiling IISS and Mednews figures.
[5] Ian Anthony et al, “Fact Sheet on Military Expenditure and Iraqi Arms Imports,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, August 8, 1990. See also Anoushiravan Ehteshami, “The Military Balance in the Gulf and its Chequered Geostrategic Character in a Changing Political Environment,” in Charles Davies, ed., After the War: Iraq, Iran and the Arab Gulf (London, 1990), p. 353.
[6] Washington Post, September 17, 1990; and “Rebuilding Iraq’s Armed Forces,” Jane’s Defence Weekly (April 1989), p. 698.
[7] Washington Post, September 17, 1990
[8] W. Seth Carus and Joseph S. Bermudez, “Iraq’s Al-Husayn Missile Programme, Part I,” Jane’s Soviet Intelligence Review (May 1990), p. 205.
[9] Ibid., pp. 203-205.
[10] W. Seth Carus and Joseph S. Bermudez, “Iraq’s Al-Husayn Missile Programme, Part II,” Jane’s Soviet Intelligence Review (June 1990), pp. 245-246.
[11] Ibid., p. 246.
[12] Ibid., p. 245. See also Kenneth Timmerman, The Poison Gas Connection (Los Angeles: Simon Wiesenthal Center, 1990), p. 8.
[13] W. Seth Carus, The Genie Unleashed: Iraq’s Chemical and Biological Weapons Program, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Paper 14, 1989, p. 1.
[14] Ibid., p. 9.
[15] Ibid., pp. 20-21.
[16] With regard to Iraq’s chemical weapons, see also “Fact Sheet: Iraqi Chemical Warfare Capabilities,” Center for Defense Information, Washington, DC, August 23, 1990.
[17] “’Der Hinweis traf ins Schwarze’: Mit dunklen Waffengeschaften heizen westdeutsche Finnen die Krise im Nahen Osten an,” Der Spiegel, September 10, 1990, p. 114.
[18] “Eindeutiger Schluss-Gutachten belegen: Deutsche Fabriken im Irak sind nur fur die Giftgasproduktion geeignet,” Der Spiegel, August 20, 1990, p. 73. After his arrest, WET manager Peter Leifer confessed to these and other deals. See “Senfgas von Ahmed-Gestandnisse tiber deutsch-irakische Giftgasgeschiifte,” Der Spiegel, October 8, 1990, p. 152.
[19] The deal was brokered by Josef Kuhn, and the chemicals manufactured by Sigma Chemie in Obernaching. “‘Wir haben Uberraschungen’: Wie deutsche Firmen den Irak fur die biologische Kriegfuhrung ausrusten,“ Der Spiegel, October 8, 1990, p. 149.
[20] Der Spiegel, September 10, 1990, p. 114.
[21] “Unter der Obhut des Diktators: Bundesdeutsche Firmen helfen Hussein bei der Aufrustung des Irak,” Der Spiegel, August 6, 1990, p. 116. H+H also built the huge and famous Baghdad victory monument which was modeled on Saddam Hussein’s arms. “Berechtigte Skepsis: Beschlagnahmte Dokumente belegen: Viele Waffengeschlifte liefen tiber die irakische Botschafter in Bonn,” Der Spiegel, August 27, 1990, p. 99.
[22] “Reigen der Raketen: osterreichische und deutsche Firmen bauen im Irak ein Forschungszentrum: Die Lieferantenliste und Zeugenaussagen lassen auf ein hochspezialisiertes Raketenlabor schliessen” Profil (Vienna), March 20, 1989; “Iraq: Saddam’s Secret Weapons,” The Middle East (June 1989), p. 21.
[23] “Der Weg des Teufels: Geheimdienstler und Staatsanwälte sind einem Bonner Waftenmakler auf der Spur,” Der Spiegel, October 1, 1990, p. 99.
[24] “Treffer mit Roland: Die dubiosen Irak-Geschiifte westdeutscher Firmen bringen Bonn in Bedrangnis,” Der Spiegel, September 24, 1990, p. 32.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Jane’s Defence Weekly, October 20, 1990, p. 739.
[27] Der Spiegel, September 10, 1990, p. 112. See Timmerman, op. cit., pp. 47-52, for a list of foreign companies engaged in Iraq’s acquisition of non-conventional weapons.
[28] Ibid., p. 113; Der Spiegel, October 8, 1990, p. 153.
[29] Der Spiegel, October 1, 1990, p. 99.
[30] Der Spiegel, October 8, 1990, p. 153.
[31] Jane’s Soviet Intelligence Review (October 1990), p. 442.
[32] Washington Post, September 17, 1990.
[33] Der Spiegel, November 26, 1990, p. 30.

How to cite this article:

Jochen Hippler "Iraq’s Military Power: The German Connection," Middle East Report 168 (January/February 1991).

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