Sunday, 30 October 2016

Chemical dangers in the battle for Mosul

Iraqi forces wear gas masks for protection, as smoke billows in the background from al-Mishraq chemical plant [AFP]

It feels like this is the beginning of the end of the campaign to liberate Mosul from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and some seem to be predicting that ISIL fighters will drift away at some stage to fight another day in Syria.

Those more than 100 suicide bombers seen in the first week of the assault and those who set light to al-Mishraq chemical plant would suggest this is not the case and that ISIL (also known as ISIS) will throw the kitchen sink at the coalition to stave off losing Mosul.

With ISIL's Iraq strongholds gone, so is most of the caliphate, no doubt with a final battle in Raqqa - but the war hinges on Mosul.

In this forthcoming apocalypse ISIL will fight with every means available, and this will include the use of their extensive chemical weapons capability.

Built up over the past two years, ISIL has been making mustard agent and fashioning toxic industrial chemicals into improvised weapons, which it has been testing by attacking the Peshmerga of Iraqi Kurdistan.

More than 20 times in the past 12 months ISIL has fired mortars and rockets at Peshmerga troops in the Makhmour area containing the "blister agent" mustard gas and chlorine, a choking gas. Chlorine and mustard gas were first developed in World War I as chemical weapons and both can be fatal if gas masks are not used.

These chemicals have killed few but injured many, and as General Sirwan Barzani, commander of the Peshmerga Black Tigers of Sector 6, told me in August near Gwer: "I know chemicals are not as dangerous as bombs and bullets, but my men have few gas masks and they fear chemicals."

A toxic legacy

The Kurds know all about chemical weapons; it was Saddam Hussein who tried to exterminate them in the 1980s in the Anfal campaign, killing up to 100,000; and most notably 5,000 in a single day at Halabja on March 16, 1988, using the deadly nerve agent sarin.

Bashar al-Assad used the same chemical weapon in Ghouta on August 21, 2013 to horrific effect. It is now Saddam's Baathist scientists who are developing ISIL's chemical capability.

On both occasions the death toll was very high because it was innocent civilians who were attacked who had no way or knowledge to save themselves.

Source: Aje