Gas attack on Iraq’s Taza sends alarm bells

Friday 18/03/2016
An Iraqi woman exposed to a chemical attack wait for treatment at a hospital in Taza, 20km south of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, on March 11th.

Detroit - Islamic State (ISIS) militants fired mustard gas at Iraq’s mainly Shia Muslim town of Taza on March 9th, killing a three-year-old girl, wounding 500 others and sending a panicked population fleeing the afflicted ar­eas.
About 50 rockets hit Taza in the afternoon, causing breathing prob­lems and body burns to some of those exposed, who did not know what had hit them, local officials said.
More than 100 Turkmen Shia families fled Taza to nearby Kirkuk, fearing more chemicals would con­tinue to be fired from the ISIS-held town of Basheer, said an official, who spoke on condition of ano­nymity.
Teams of experts were dis­patched to the area to test for trac­es of chemicals, the official said.
The only fatality from the Taza attack was Fatima Samir, the three-year-old child, who died in the hospital due to respiratory com­plications and kidney failure three days after the attack. Dozens of other victims were hospitalised in Kirkuk, while those with life-threatening conditions were sent to Baghdad hospitals.
Shia Turkmen lawmaker Arshad al-Salehi called upon the central government in Baghdad to provide urgent medical supplies and assis­tance to treat Taza victims. He de­scribed the medical care offered as “inadequate”.
Salehi also warned that ISIS fighters have set up about 40 more rockets, filled with mustard gas, to fire at Taza again.
Another official said military preparations were under way to retake Basheer, which ISIS seized in the summer of 2014, after an of­fensive in which one-third of the country fell to the terror group.
Iraq’s army, its Shia militia allies, Kurdish peshmerga forces, sup­ported by US and Iraqi warplanes, were expected to participate in the operation, said the official.
He said he did not know when the “zero hour” would be to re­claim Basheer, but noted that it “will be soon and it will be quick and clean”.
In a written statement, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi vowed that the militants behind the Taza attack would pay a “heavy price” and warned that they “will be terminated soon”. He promised more medical supplies and teams to meet the needs of Taza victims.
“Daesh has only small rockets which can deliver a limited amount of chemicals to short-range dis­tances,” said Ashraf al-Obeidi, a se­curity analyst and retired brigadier using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.
“Such factors limit the group’s capability of inflicting big physical harm,” he said. “Yet, using such weapons against civilians have a great psychological warfare signifi­cance.”
The Taza attack is believed to be the first known ISIS chemical attack against a civilian popula­tion, an indication that the militant group is taking the war into a new and more horrific level.
The extremist group is believed to have formed a special unit for chemical weapons research. Last week, US officials said air strikes were launched against some ISIS chemical weapons sites follow­ing the capture of the group’s top chemical expert in Iraq in February.
Obeidi said the attack might be an attempt by the leaders of the militant group to raise the morale of their fighters by showing that it can strike back after a series of de­feats ISIS suffered in Iraq and Syria in the past few months.
He criticised the Iraqi intel­ligence for failing to predict the chemical attack on Taza. “Iraq’s senior security officials care mainly for protecting Baghdad and give lit­tle attention to other areas,” Obeidi said.
“Such chemical attacks could re­cur. So, real work is needed to stop it.”