The United States is investigating whether the Islamic State used chemical weapons, the White House said Thursday, following allegations that IS militants deployed chemical weapons against Kurdish forces in northern Iraq.
Alistair Baskey, a spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council, said the US is taking the allegations “very seriously” and 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.
An unnamed US official quoted by the Wall Street Journal said the US believed the jihadists likely used mustard gas on Kurdish forces.
The official said the US was never able to verify the Bashar Assad regime had actually destroyed its stockpile of the nerve agent in 2014, and it could have been hidden away and wound up in the hands of Islamic State fighters instead.
“We have credible information that the agent used in the attack was mustard,” the senior US official was quoted saying.
Earlier on Thursday, Kurdish officials said their forces, known as peshmerga, were attacked the day before near the town of Makhmour, Iraq, not far from Irbil.
Germany’s military has been training the Kurds in the area, and the German Defense Ministry said some 60 Kurdish fighters had suffered breathing difficulties from the attack — a telltale sign of chemical weapons use.
A senior official from the peshmerga told AFP the attack happened two days ago and wounded several dozen fighters.
“Last Tuesday afternoon, peshmerga forces in the Makhmur area 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of the city of Irbil were attacked with Katyusha rockets filled with chlorine,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
Confirmation of chemical weapons use by IS would mark a dramatic turn in the US-led effort to rout the extremist group from territory it has seized in Iraq and Syria. Although the US and its coalition partners are mounting airstrikes against the Islamic State, they are relying on local forces like the Kurds, the Iraqi military and others to do the fighting on the ground.
Last month, the Conflict Armament Research group and Sahan Research group said IS had also targeted peshmerga with a projectile filled with an unknown chemical agent on June 21 or 22.
The chemical used had characteristics and clinical effects “consistent with a chlorine chemical agent,” the groups said.
The organizations said they had also documented two such attacks against Kurdish fighters from the People’s Protection Units in Syria’s northeastern Hasakeh province on June 28.
It said that upon impact, the projectiles had released a yellow gas “with a strong smell of rotten onions”.
There were no deaths but troops exposed to it had experienced burning of the throat, eyes and nose, severe headaches, muscle pain, impaired concentration and mobility, and vomiting.
“Although these chemical attacks appear to be test cases, we expect IS construction skills to advance rapidly as they have for other IEDS (improvised explosive devices),” said Emmanuel Deisser, managing director at Sahan Research, at the time
Following a chemical weapon 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.
But there have been numerous reports of chemical weapons use in Syria since then — especially chlorine-filled barrel bombs. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the global chemical weapons watchdog, has been investigating possible undeclared chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria.
Word of the White House’s probe into possible chemical weapons use by IS came as President Barack Obama was vacationing with his family in Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.