The U.S. Marines who guarded the sprawling complex in northwest Iraq where Saddam Hussein’s 1980s war machine churned out some of the most deadly chemical and biological weapons known to man had a name for one especially mysterious bunker: The Dragon’s Egg.
Although the Americans assigned to the Al Muthanna facility until 2008 were forbidden by superiors from peering inside the bunker, they knew the larger complex’s history. From 1983 to 1990, the brutal dictator’s scientists worked there, developing mustard, sarin, VX and Tabun gases for use on Iranian soldiers and Iraqi Kurds. And although it was under the control of U.S. and Iraqi military forces for most of the last decade, the entire facility - and whatever it held - is now firmly in the grasp of the Islamic State, the terrorist army that has claimed a vast swath of Iraq and Syria and allegedly used chemical weapons against Kurds this summer.
The X-shaped bunker, encased in cement and shrouded in mystery, was one of two that were handled differently from the many other bunkers that made up the facility, according to Lt. Joshua Hartley, who was stationed there in 2008. It was off-limits.
“We were made aware of a particular bunker on the north side [of Al Muthanna] which we were informed was sealed and remotely monitored,” Hartley, who served in the weapons company of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, told FoxNews.com. “We were not to approach, and definitely not to attempt to enter.”
An Iraqi Army outpost was positioned immediately next to the Dragon’s Egg bunker, which was under constant observation. It was an open secret that the bunker contained vast amounts of Hussein’s most dangerous nerve agents, according to Hartley.
“We became aware that there were two particular bunkers - one of which had reportedly been sealed up some time before - that held potentially devastating contents,” said Hartley, who went on to serve in Afghanistan and achieved the rank of captain before being discharged from the military. The Georgia native now lives in New York.
On Nov. 2, 2008, the Iraqi troops guarding the Dragon’s Egg were suddenly pulled from the outpost. Hartley’s platoon was ordered to clear the compound and members found 40 shells simply lying around outside of the bunker. They alerted superiors, but as they waited for specialized chemical weapons disposal units to arrive, Hartley recalled, one Marine “picked [a shell] up and could literally hear the liquid sloshing around inside of it.”
Marine Lance Cpl. Kevin Fanning, who served in Hartley’s platoon and corroborated the account, described other ominous discoveries made by the Marines as they cleared the area around the top-secret bunker.
“When we began searching, we discovered a huge stockpile of 105-millimeter artillery shells that were filled with mustard gas,” Fanning told FoxNews.com. “I have always wondered why it never became big news, as well as other incidents. I never doubted the existence of chemical and biological weapons in Iraq.”
Their account was similar to a separate one reported by The New York Times earlier this week, in which U.S. service members guarding Al Muthanna said a toxic agent used in mustard gas leaked out of a shell when a soldier picked it up. According to the Times, more than a dozen U.S. soldiers were injured by chemical weapons but the incidents were not made public.
Gen. Jack Kean, chairman of the Institute for the Study of War, former Army vice-chief of staff and a Fox News contributor, told Fox News’ ‘The Kelly File’ on Wednesday that it was known in high military circles that Hussein’s old weaponry was still around, although it was believed to be in poor condition.
“It was common knowledge in the chain of command that these storage sites existed and occasionally our soldiers would ‘bang into these things,’” Kean said.
Al Muthanna was known to be the nerve center of Hussein’s chemical weapons program, which was reportedly aided by western nations long before Operation Desert Storm. An October, 2000, report by the Federation of American Scientists identified it as a testing ground for Anthrax and Ricin. Although the chaos following the fall of Hussein in 2003 would seem to have made it essential that the secret bunker known as Dragon’s Egg be de-commissioned by specially-trained chemical weapons experts, it wasn’t until much later that international leaders took up the issue, according to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Discussions were held in November 2011, hosted by the U.S. in Aberdeen, Maryland, with 38 experts from around the world.
“All experts present during the roundtable agreed that bunker 13 at Al Muthanna represents a special case and that an entry into the bunker would expose personnel to explosive, chemical, and physical hazards,” the OPCW reported. “The potential for an explosion occurring is the most serious factor due to the presence of scattered fuses and warhead components.”
It is believed that the “bunker 13” referenced at the meeting is the one Hartley and his men called Dragon’s Egg.
A U.S. State Department report last February indicated that administration officials were fully aware of the potentially huge dangers the bunker and another one like it at Al Muthanna presented.
“The [Chemical Weapons] destruction plan is dependent on the assessment of the contents of the [Chemical Weapons Storage Facilities], bunkers 13 and 41 at Al Muthanna,” the State Department reported. But efforts to neutralize the bunkers appear not to have been carried out, and now Kean and Hartley fear it could be too late. Al Muthanna was overrun by Islamic State militants in July.
“Frankly, the weapons could be used by ISIS,” Kean said. “Our troops’ mission was not to clean this up; that was something the Iraqis were supposed to do, and obviously they didn’t do a very good job of it,” the general added. “I know from talking to people who were involved, that the Sunni insurgents used some of these weapons as IED’s against us.”
With reports that Islamic State fighters may have used chemical weapons to attack the Syrian city of Kobani earlier this summer, Hartley also wonders if the contents of the mysterious bunker known as Dragon’s Egg have been unleashed.