War with Isis: US investigating chemical weapons attacks against Kurds in Iraq

Kurdish officials said their forces were attacked near Makhmour

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The claimed use of chemical weapons against Kurdish forces in Iraq has triggered an investigation in the US and marked a dangerous escalation in the war against Isis.

Alistair Baskey, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said Washington was taking the allegations “very seriously” and seeking more information about what happened. The “Islamic State” has been accused of using chemical weapons before, Mr Baskey noted.

“We continue to monitor these reports closely, and would further stress that any use of chemicals or biological material as a weapon is completely inconsistent with international standards and norms regarding such capabilities,” he said. 

Kurdish officials said their forces – the Peshmerga – were attacked on Wednesday near the town of Makhmour, not far from Irbil, the capital of Kurdish Iraq. Germany’s military has been training the Kurds in the area, and the German Defence Ministry said some 60 Kurdish fighters had suffered breathing difficulties from the attack – a telltale sign of chemical weapons use.

But neither Germany nor the Kurds specified which type of chemical weapons may have been used. The Wall Street Journal reported that the agent could have been mustard gas, obtained in Syria.

“The terrorist Daesh [Isis] launched 45 120mm-mortar shells tipped with chemical heads on Peshmerga positions, which led to the injury of a number of Peshmerga forces with burns on different parts of their bodies,” the Peshmerga General Command said.

Confirmation of chemical weapon use by Isis would mark a dramatic turn in the US-led effort to rout the group from the roughly one-third of Iraq and Syria it controls.

Although America and its coalition partners, including Britain, are mounting air strikes against Isis, they are relying on local forces like the Kurds, the Iraqi military and others to fight on the ground. Already, those forces have struggled to match the might of the well-funded and heavily armed extremists. At the UN, the US Ambassador Samantha Power said Washington was speaking with the Kurdish officials who had made the allegations, to gather more information. She said that if reports of chemical weapons are true, they would further prove that what Isis calls warfare is really “just systematic attacks on civilians who don’t accord to their particularly perverse world view”.

“I think we will have to again move forward on these allegations, get whatever evidence we can,” said Ms Power. She added that as a result of earlier chemical weapons use by the Syrian government, the US and its partners now have advanced forensic systems to analyse chemical attacks. She said anyone responsible should be held accountable.

Similar reports of chemical weapons use by Isis had surfaced last month. But it remains unclear exactly where the group  may have obtained such  weapons from.

Following a chemical weapon attack on a suburb of Damascus in 2014 that killed hundreds of civilians, the US and Russia mounted a diplomatic effort that resulted in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government agreeing to the destruction or removal of its chemical weapons stockpiles. But there have been numerous reports of chemical weapons use in Syria since then – especially chlorine-filled barrel bombs.

Associated Press