The Cable

Pentagon: Early Indications ISIS Used Chemical Weapons Against Kurds

Islamic State us the ante in Iraq by allegedly using chemical weapons

Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters prepare a mortar shell as they guard a position at the frontline of fighting against Islamic State (IS) group's militants near the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, west of the city of Mosul on August 17, 2015.  AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED        (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters prepare a mortar shell as they guard a position at the frontline of fighting against Islamic State (IS) group's militants near the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, west of the city of Mosul on August 17, 2015. AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)

Mortar rounds fired by the Islamic State at Kurdish peshmerga forces in northern Iraq earlier this month have tested positive for a potentially lethal chemical weapons agent, a U.S. military official confirmed on Friday.

The Aug. 11 attack near the town of Makhmour caused breathing difficulties and skin irritation to the Kurdish forces, initial reports stated. But U.S. Marine Brig. Gen. Kevin Killea, chief of staff for military operations in Iraq and Syria, warned reporters at the Pentagon on Friday that the initial field tests carried out by U.S. forces are not conclusive, and merely indicate the presence of sulfur mustard, otherwise known as mustard gas. It may take weeks to reach a definitive conclusion, he said.

After the mortar attack by Islamic State militants, the peshmerga delivered the shell fragments to a U.S. base near Erbil, where U.S. forces tested the fragments and reached their initial conclusions.

The growing indications that the Islamic State has access to at least some crude types of chemical weapons highlights a central irony of the current U.S. military campaign against the group. President Barack Obama came close to launching airstrikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad after the Syrian strongman conducted a lethal attack on a Damascus suburb. The administration backed down after Assad agreed to destroy his chemical weapons stockpiles. Today, Assad’s forces are engaging the Islamic State on the ground while the U.S. bombs from the air. American concerns about future use of chemical weapons, meanwhile, now center on the Islamic State, not Assad.

The United States has not delivered any chemical or biological equipment to the Iraqi or Kurdish forces battling the Islamic State as part of the $1.6 billion Iraq Train and Equip Fund approved by Congress in the 2015 Defense Department budget. A total of $404 million of that has been spent thus far, according to the latest figures available, from the Defense Department.

In 2013, the U.S. State Department announced the potential sale of 50 armored Stryker infantry carriers to Iraq, with special nuclear, biological and chemical detection capabilities, in a deal that would be worth about $900 million. The announcement said that the vehicles would give Iraqi forces “reliable capabilities for early warning of contamination by radiological, biological, and chemical material.” But the vehicles have not yet been delivered, a State Department official confirmed to Foreign Policy, since the Iraqi government failed to follow up on the planned purchase.

Either way, Iraq is no stranger to chemical warfare. In  March 1988, Saddam Hussein attacked Kurdish civilians in Halabja in a massive chemical weapons attack, killing up to 5,000 men, women, and children in what remains the world’s largest and most deadly use of chemical weapons against civilians.

 

Photo Credit: SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola