Evidence mounts of ISIS mustard gas use
AMMAN - Initial tests on mortar shell fragments fired by Islamic State (ISIS) militants on Kurdish forces in northern Iraq on August 11th indicated traces of mustard gas and a broader investigation has been launched to verify the finding, a diplomat and US officials said.
ISIS shelled the town of Mari in Syria’s northern province of Aleppo on August 22nd and again September 1st and many residents died from asphyxiation as a foul smell filled the air, residents said.
The attacks in Iraq and Syria are the latest indications that ISIS has chemical weapons.
“This is a critical development that threatens the interests of the United States and the safety of its allies in the Middle East,” said a Jordan-based Western diplomat, commenting on the attack in Iraq.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the diplomat said US officials were trying to confirm the chemical agent used, how much was contained in the shells and the source of the substance.
If it was determined that sulphur mustard was indeed used, ISIS could have obtained it in Syria, which agreed to relinquish its stockpile of banned chemical weapons in 2013, or in Iraq, the diplomat said.
Witnesses to the attack near the town of Makhmur in northern Iraq reported a billowing plume of yellowish smoke and a bleach smell that filled the air as wounded residents fell.
ISIS launched two attacks on Mari around the end of August using gas in artillery shells, according to two Syrians — an activist who witnessed the second attack and a Mari resident who fled to Damascus after the earlier offensive.
“The air was filled with a very strong, bad odour and many people were asphyxiated,” the activist said. The gas had a “distinct smell of rotten eggs”, he said.
The Mari resident said he saw “white fumes” in the air shortly after mortars hit densely populated areas on August 22nd. “There was panic, people were choking and falling down,” he said, noting that he watched from afar. The activist and the Mari resident spoke to The Arab Weekly in Jordan in separate telephone interviews. They insisted on anonymity, citing safety reasons.
Zaher al-Saket, a brigadier-general who defected from the Syrian army’s chemical division in 2013, said ISIS used mustard gas in Mari.
Saket, who heads an independent centre documenting the Syrian government’s chemical attacks, said he had investigated more than 90 suspected cases in the past year. He said chlorine was mostly used by the Syrian regime, but more recently by ISIS.
In Washington, US Marine Corps Brigadier-General Kevin Killea, chief of staff for operations against ISIS, said shell fragments from the attack in Iraq tested positive for sulphur mustard in a field analysis. Killea said the test was not conclusive proof of chemical weapons use and the fragments would be tested further.
In the August 11th incident, mortar shells were fired at Kurdish peshmerga positions near Makhmur, Killea said. Fragments were collected by Kurdish fighters and given to US forces in the region.
About 80 km south-east of Mosul, Makhmur district is disputed by the Kurdistan Regional Government and the central government in Baghdad.
ISIS captured Makhmur in June 2014, but Kurdish peshmerga forces retook the territory in August 2014.
Witnesses said they saw columns of “yellow clouds” over the town the day of the attack.
“It started with heavy ISIS shelling against the peshmerga, then we saw yellowish-white smoke rising to the sky,” said resident Abdullah Jobouri.
“I saw injured people lying in the street after the smoke disappeared,” said witness Mohammed Anzi. He said there was a distinct “smell of bleach household cleaners that filled the air”.
In Mosul, resident Firas Hamadani said he heard ISIS leaders in his city on August 11th boasting that they attacked the peshmerga with chemicals.
“They bragged about it but didn’t say what type of chemical they used,” Hamadani said in a telephone interview from Baghdad.
A peshmerga official, speaking on condition of anonymity, dismissed the US suggestion that the chemical agent was mustard gas. “It was chlorine,” he said, but declined to elaborate.
Sulphur mustard is a Class 1 chemical agent, which means it has few uses other than chemical warfare. Commonly referred to as mustard gas, it causes severe, delayed burns to the eyes, skin and respiratory tract, according to the US Centers for Disease Control.
Sulphur mustard can also affect the nervous system and cause excess saliva, tears and urine, diarrhoea and vomiting. The gas, which can smell like garlic or mustard, is fatal in large doses.
There have been previous reports of ISIS using chemicals in other attacks. In March, the autonomous Kurdish government in northern Iraq said it had evidence that ISIS used chlorine in a car bomb attack on January 23rd.
The Conflict Armament Research group and Sahan Research group said in July that ISIS had targeted peshmerga with a projectile filled with an unknown chemical agent on June 21st or 22nd.
The organisations said they had documented two such attacks against Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units in Syria’s north-eastern Hasakah province on June 28th.