What is sarin?
One of the world's most dangerous chemical warfare agents. Sarin is an extremely toxic substance that disrupts the nervous system, overstimulating muscles and vital organs. It can be inhaled as a gas or absorbed through the skin. In high doses, sarin suffocates its victims by paralyzing the muscles around their lungs. One hundred milligrams of sarin (about one drop) can kill the average person in a few minutes if he or she's not given an antidote. Experts say sarin is more than 500 times as toxic as cyanide.
Did Saddam Hussein have a sarin stockpile before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq?
We don't know. Saddam Hussein said he destroyed his chemical weapons before the 2003 war. The unclassified October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate stated that Iraq "has begun renewed production of ... sarin" and other chemical weapons, and estimated that Saddam Hussein had between 100 and 500 metric tons of chemical agents. When U.S. troops first invaded Iraq, they were equipped with protective suits, chemical detection equipment, and antidotes to defend themselves from a chemical weapon attack. But in the three years since the U.S. invaded Iraq, no chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction have been recovered. It is now believed that prewar intelligence regarding Saddam's stockpiles was inaccurate.
Did Iraq ever use sarin?
Yes. Iraq began producing sarin in 1984 and admitted to possessing 790 tons of it in 1995. Saddam Hussein used sarin on the Kurds in northern Iraq during a 1987-88 campaign known as the Anfal. The worst attack occurred in March 1988 in the Kurdish village of Halabja; a combination of chemical agents including sarin and mustard gas killed as many as 5,000 people and left 65,000 others with severe skin and respiratory diseases, abnormal rates of cancer and birth defects, and a devastated environment. Experts say Saddam Hussein launched about 280 chemical attacks against the Kurds.
Did Iraq use sarin on U.S. troops during the 1991 Gulf War?
No. But in 1996, Pentagon officials said that "Gulf War syndrome"—which afflicted more than 20,000 U.S. veterans with chronic symptoms of fatigue, muscular pain, headaches, and memory loss—may have resulted from the U.S. bombing of an Iraqi munitions dump that contained sarin-filled rockets. But many experts attribute the syndrome to psychological stress, not sarin. They note that sarin does not usually cause long-term illness, that the amounts released were too small to affect so many soldiers, and that none of the veterans suffered the acute symptoms usually associated with sarin exposure.
Have terrorists ever used sarin?
Yes. It was used in 1995 by Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese doomsday cult, in a terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway system that killed twelve and sent more than 5,000 people to hospitals. A year earlier, the cult killed seven people in a sarin gas attack in the central Japanese city of Matsumoto.
How deadly was the sarin used in Aum Shinrikyo’s 1995 attack?
Not very. Just prior to the attack, Aum hurriedly produced a low-lethality batch of sarin. Moreover, the sarin was disseminated poorly; the perpetrators left punctured packages of liquid sarin in subway cars and stations, which gave officials time to seal off the affected areas. If purer sarin had been released, particularly as an aerosol, the attack might have been much worse.