Kurdish dead from Saddam Hussein Gas attack, Halabja, Iraq March 1988
New English Review, by Jerry Gordon, August 14, 2015:
The reports about prohibited mustard gas attacks by ISIS against Kurdish peshmerga near Erbil in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq indicate that ISIS has acquired the capabilities either from caches of the Assad regime in Syria or in Iraq. They are similar to reports of similar chemical attacks on Syrian YPG forces during the Kobani siege in 2014 and eerily familiar to Iraqi Kurds given the thousands killed in Saddam Hussein gas attacks in March 1988 at Halabja. The Wall Street Journal reported in today’s edition on the significance of what American military believe that the efforts by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had not secured these unconventional weapons during operations in 2013, “US Believes ISIS Used Chemical Weapons on Kurds:”
Islamic State fighters likely used mustard agent against Kurdish forces in Iraq this week, senior U.S. officials said Thursday, in the first indication the militant group has obtained banned chemicals.
The officials said Islamic State could have obtained the mustard agent in Syria, whose government admitted to having large quantities in 2013 when it agreed to give up its chemical-weapons arsenal.
The use of mustard agent would mark an upgrade in Islamic State’s battlefield capabilities, and a worrisome one given U.S. intelligence fears about hidden caches of chemical weapons in Syria, where Islamic State controls wide swaths of territory.
It raises new questions about the evolving threat posed by Islamic State and the ability of U.S. allies on the ground to combat it. Frontline Kurdish, Iraqi and moderate Syrian forces say they aren’t getting enough U.S. support now to counter Islamic State’s conventional capabilities.
Officials say these forces may need specialized equipment and training to help protect them against unconventional weapons if they become a fixture on the battlefield.
The attack in question took place late Wednesday, about 40 miles southwest of Erbil in northern Iraq. A German Defense Ministry spokesman said about 60 Peshmerga fighters, who help protect Kurdish areas in northern Iraq, were reported to have suffered injuries to their throats consistent with a chemical attack while fighting Islamic State.
“These were apparently chemical weapons. What it was exactly we don’t know,” the German ministry spokesman said, adding that experts were on their way to the scene to conduct a fuller analysis. He said German personnel weren’t present at the scene of the attack.
The possibility that Islamic State obtained the agent in Syria “makes the most sense,” said one senior U.S. official. It is also possible that Islamic State obtained the mustard agent in Iraq, officials said, possibly from old stockpiles that belonged to Saddam Hussein and weren’t destroyed.
U.S. intelligence agencies are still investigating the source and how it could have been delivered this week on the battlefield, officials said.
Islamic State has taken control of territory in Syria close to where President Bashar al-Assad’s forces stored chemical weapons, including mustard agent. The regime said in 2013 that all of its mustard stockpiles had been destroyed, either by Syrian forces themselves or by international inspectors.
Inspectors, however, have subsequently said they weren’t able to verify claims by the Syrian government that it had burned hundreds of tons of mustard agent in earthen pits. U.S. intelligence agencies now say they believe Damascus hid some caches of deadly chemicals from the West, possibly including mustard.
Intelligence officials and chemical-weapons experts have expressed concerns in recent months that some of those banned chemicals could fall into the hands of Islamic State or other extremist groups.
U.S. intelligence agencies have also warned the White House that the Assad regime could use chemical agents it still has to defend its remaining strongholds if they come under siege.
In addition to mustard, the Assad regime admitted to having deadlier nerve agents, such as sarin and VX. But officials said U.S. intelligence agencies don’t have any evidence to suggest Islamic State has either sarin or VX, which would be far more lethal on the battlefield.
Dead YPG Kurdish woman fighter in Avdiko, Syria July 2014
For Kurds, whether in Iraq or Syria, chemical warfare by ISIS has bitter memories of lethal gas attacks by Saddam Hussein’s regime at Halabja, Iraq in 1988 and in July 2014 at Kobani, Syria. We wrote about these in an October 2014 NER/Iconoclast post on a MERIA investigation by Jonathan Spyer.
The MERIA special report contradicts the observations of Ms. Psaki and other military experts. Clearly, ISIS has former Hussein Ba’athist commanders who knew about Al Muthanna and what it contained. These same commanders may have even been involved in the infamous genocidal CW attack that killed 5,000 Kurds in Halabja, Iraq in March 16, 1988 in the final year of the Iran-Iraq War. In a September 2013 Iconoclast post about a previous Spyer essay advocating establishment of an independent Kurdistan, we wrote:
Fast forward to the mid-1970’s when the Iraqi Kurds were a pawn in an unsuccessful covert war for autonomy against Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein which ended in 1975 when the late Shah of Iran inked a treaty with Hussein in Algiers. Effectively the Kurds were abandoned and covert Israeli military and technical assistance to Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani was shut down at the request of Dr. Kissinger as national security advisor to President Ford. That set the stage for retaliation by Saddam Hussein, when he undertook punitive action against the Kurds who had joined up with the Islamic Republic in Tehran. In 1985, Saddam Hussein launched chemical warfare attacks against Kurdish villages in northwestern Iraq, the ancient Kurdish homeland. An estimated 5,000 Kurds were killed in the village of Halabja. This was part of the genocidal 1988 Al-Anfal Campaign that slaughtered in excess of 50,000 Iraqi Kurds.
Spyer notes the circumstances behind this latest CW attack on Kurdish fighters in the vicinity of Kobani in July2014:
Prior to the current campaign, the most serious (but unsuccessful) attempt to conquer Kobani came in July 2014; shortly following the dramatic IS advance into Iraq.
It was during this assault on Kobani that evidence emerged which appeared to point to the use by the Islamic State on at least one occasion of some kind of chemical agent against the Kurdish fighters of the YPG (Peoples’ Protection Units).
The July offensive commenced on July 2nd. According to Kurdish activists, the use of the chemical agent took place on July 12th, in the village of Avdiko, in the eastern part of the Kobani enclave (now in IS hands.)
Nisan Ahmed, health minister of the Kurdish authority in Kobani, established a medical team to examine the incident. According to Ahmed, the bodies of three Kurdish fighters showed no signs of damage from bullets. Rather “burns and white spots on the bodies of the dead indicated the use of chemicals, which led to death without any visible wounds or external bleeding.”
According to expert Israeli sources who have seen the pictures, they appear to indicate the use of some form of chemical agent, probably mustard (blister agent), but it is not possible to conclusively confirm this without further investigation.