ISIS used banned chemicals, say Kurds
AMMAN - Several Iraqi Kurdish fighters tested positive for mustard gas after a summer of war against Islamic State (ISIS) militants in northern Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) said, accusing the jihadist group of using banned chemical weapons.
US Marine Corps Brigadier-General Kevin Killea, chief of staff for operations against ISIS, said on August 21st that field analysis of shell fragments from an attack in Iraq tested positive for sulphur mustard. Killea said the test was not conclusive proof of chemical weapons use and the fragments would be tested further.
The latest evidence, however, raised the question of where ISIS obtained the chemicals.
Experts argue that ISIS is buying raw material on the markets in Iraq and Syria to manufacture basic mustard or chlorine gas bombs mounted on warheads, most commonly Russian-made Katyusha rockets.
Other material, such as light weapons and ammunition, are bought on the black market, especially in Turkey, in return for oil from fields in Iraq and Syria, which the jihadists sell, according to the experts. They maintained that the bulk of ISIS’s sophisticated US-made light and heavy weaponry, however, comes from warehouses deserted by retreating Syrian and Iraqi armies.
“My research traced the source of the chemicals and I came to conclusion that raw material was bought in the market in Iraq and Syria and prepared according to Internet bomb-making instructions,” said Aziz al-Khazraji, an Iraqi military expert who has conducted significant research on ISIS.
“Nobody is willing to sell ISIS chemical weapons, not even on the black market,” he said. “The only logical explanation is that ISIS manufactures the mustard gas it is using in its attacks in Iraq as well as Syria”.
Khazraji said his findings showed that ISIS developed a specialised cell to manufacture banned weapons, importing the capabilities through jihadist doctors, engineers and other foreign professionals, including French, English, Australians, Canadians and Americans.
In the August 11th incident, mortar shells were fired at Kurdish peshmerga positions in and near Makhmur, northern Iraq, Killea said in remarks in Washington. Fragments were collected by Kurdish fighters and given to US forces.
About 80 kilometres south-east of Mosul, Makhmur district is disputed by the KRG and the central government in Baghdad. ISIS captured Makhmur in June 2014, but Kurdish peshmerga forces retook the territory two months later.
Following the August 11th attack, a witness said he saw a column of smoke over Makhmur on the day of the attack. Abdullah Jobouri said after heavy shelling of a peshmerga front line, “We saw yellowish-white smoke rising to the sky.”
On October 10th, KRG’s Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs announced that blood samples from Kurdish fighters sent to a Baghdad lab revealed traces of the toxic gas.
Ministry Secretary-General Jabbar Yawar, said in an interview that the exposure took place along the front lines near the northern Iraqi towns of Makhmur and nearby Gwer.
He said tests conducted by the Americans on shells and soil proved the area was hit with mustard gas.
“It is conclusive evidence that the peshmergas were exposed to chemicals,” Yawar said. He said the blood tests were done at a Baghdad laboratory.
An Iraqi Health Ministry official said blood samples from at least 35 peshmerga fighters tested positive for mustard and chlorine gases. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, declined to provide other details.
Iraqi Kurdish troops, trained and helped by US advisers, took the lead in battling ISIS after the extremist group captured much of northern Iraq in 2014. Iraqi government forces and allied Shia militias have since joined the fight, backed by US-led coalition air strikes.
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 March, the KRG said it had evidence that ISIS used chlorine in a car bomb attack on January 23rd. There have been numerous reports of chemicals used in ISIS attacks in Syria’s north and central regions.