US investigating IS chemical weapons use against Kurds

US investigating IS chemical weapons use against Kurds
The US is to investigate reports the Islamic State group used chemical weapons in an attack witnessed by German trainers working with Kurdish Peshmerga forces.
4 min read
14 August, 2015
Around 60 Peshmerga experienced breathing difficulties after the attack [Getty]

The US is investigating whether the Islamic State group (IS) used chemical weapons, the White House said on Thursday, following allegations that IS militants used chemical weapons against Kurdish forces in northern Iraq.

Alistair Baskey, a spokesman for the White House's National Security Council, said the US was taking the allegations "very seriously" and was seeking more information about what happened. He noted that IS had been accused of using such weapons before.

"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," Baskey said in a statement.

Kurdish forces in northern Iraq fighting Islamic State militants were attacked with chemical weapons on Tuesday, the group's fighters and the German defence ministry said on Thursday.

American and Iraqi specialists from Baghdad are on their way to find out what happened.
- German defence ministry spokesman

"There was a chemical weapons attack," southwest of Erbil, a ministry spokesman said, adding that some Kurdish fighters suffered respiratory problems while German military trainers were unhurt.

"American and Iraqi specialists from Baghdad are on their way to find out what happened," added the spokesman.

Kurdish officials said their forces, known as the peshmerga, were attacked the day before, near the town of Makhmour, 50 kilometres west of Erbil, on Tuesday.

Germany's military has been training Kurdish fighters in the area, and the German Defence Ministry said some 60 Kurdish fighters had suffered breathing difficulties from the attack - a tell-tale sign of chemical weapons use. But neither Germany nor the Kurds specified which type of chemical weapons may have been used.

The attack

Peshmerga commander Mohammad Asaad Khushawi told al-Araby al-Jadeed that IS fighters had fired "45 shells, of which 38 exploded".

Khushawi said the shells contained chemicals which caused burns to Peshmerga fighters.

This is not the first time that the IS group has been accused of using chemical weapons.

The Wall Street Journal cited US officials as saying they believe the attack used mustard gas, which may have come from stockpiles of banned poisons that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was forced to get rid of in 2013.

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

Confirmation of chemical weapons use by the IS would mark a dramatic turn in the US-led effort to rout the group.

Although the US and its coalition partners are mounting airstrikes against the Islamic State group, they are relying on local forces such as the Kurds, the Iraqi military and others to do the fighting on the ground.

Already, these forces have struggled to match the might of the well-funded and heavily armed extremist group.

The international response

At the UN, US Ambassador Samantha Power said the US was speaking with the Kurds who had made the allegations to gather more information. She said that if reports of chemical weapons were true, they would further prove that what IS 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," Power said.

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 weapons attacks. She said anyone responsible should be held accountable.

Similar reports of chemical weapons use by IS had surfaced in July. But it remains unclear exactly where the extremist group may have obtained any chemical weapons.

Following a chemical attack on a suburb of the Syrian capital of Damascus in 2014 that killed hundreds of civilians, the US and Russia mounted a diplomatic effort that resulted in Syrian President Bashar Assad's government agreeing to the destruction or removal of its chemical weapons stockpiles.

However, there have been numerous reports of chemical weapons use in Syria since then - especially chlorine-filled barrel bombs. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the global chemical weapons watchdog, has been investigating possible undeclared chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria.