Kerry says reports IS used chemical weapons ‘extremely serious’

US secretary of state adds allegations of chlorine gas use cannot be confirmed, will not change US strategy in Iraq

US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to journalists about an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria, Thursday, August 26, 2013 (screen capture)
US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to journalists about an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria, Thursday, August 26, 2013 (screen capture)

BAGHDAD (AP) — US Secretary of State John Kerry called allegations that Islamic State militants used chlorine gas in Iraq “extremely serious Friday, but said the US could not confirm the veracity of the claims.

“The use of any chemical weapon is an abhorrent act,” Kerry told reporters at a State Department news conference with the South Korean foreign minister. “It’s against international law. And these recent allegations underscore the importance of the work that we are currently engaged in.”

He said the attacks, if true, “will not change our strategy” in Iraq.

Iraqi officials said earlier in the day that militants used chlorine gas during fighting with security forces and Shiite militiamen last month north of Baghdad.

The disclosure came on the heels of similar reports from the Syrian border town of Kobani, indicating that the extremist group may have added low-grade chemical weapons to an arsenal that already includes heavy weapons and tanks looted from captured military bases.

Three Iraqi officials — a senior security official, a local official from the town of Duluiya and an official from the town of Balad — told The Associated Press that the Islamic State group used bombs with chlorine-filled cylinders during clashes in late September in the two towns.

The militants, who control large areas of Syria and Iraq, have failed to capture Duluiya or Balad, both of which are around 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of the Iraqi capital.

In the attacks, about 40 troops and Shiite militiamen were slightly affected by the chlorine and showed symptoms consistent with chlorine poisoning, such as difficulty in breathing and coughing, the three officials said. The troops were treated in hospital and quickly recovered.

The senior security official said it was most likely that the Islamic State fighters obtained the chlorine from water purification plants in the areas they have overrun. Iraqi intelligence has indicated that the IS group has shells filled with chlorine that are ready to be used, the security official said.

“The IS fighters seized some quantities of chlorine after seizing control of some water purification plants or sites where chlorine was kept,” said the senior official, adding that the “IS group has some experts who were able to manufacture chlorine shells.”

The three officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media, did not elaborate or provide more details. The use of chlorine by the IS group in Iraq in September was first reported by the Washington Post.

Chlorine, an industrial chemical, was first introduced as a chemical weapon at Ypres in World War I with disastrous effects because gas masks were not widely available at the time.

In neighboring Syria, a joint UN fact-finding mission sent to investigate alleged chlorine attacks was ambushed and briefly detained by armed men earlier this year in rebel-held territory. The mission had said it was virtually certain chlorine had been used as a chemical weapon in the country’s north.

And earlier this week Kurdish officials and doctors said they believed Islamic State militants had released some kind of toxic gas in the Syrian town of Kobani on the Turkish border, where Kurdish forces have been fending off a massive monthlong offensive by the extremist group.

Aysa Abdullah, a senior Kurdish official based in the town, said the attack took place late Tuesday, and that a number of people suffered symptoms that included dizziness and watery eyes. She and other officials said doctors lacked the equipment to determine what kinds of chemicals were used.

The reports could not be independently confirmed. Kurdish officials have made similar allegations before.

Syrian President Bashar Assad had agreed with the United States and Russia to dispose of his chemical weapons — an arsenal that Damascus had never previously formally acknowledged — after hundreds of people were killed in a sarin gas attack on the outskirts of Damascus in the summer of 2013. But because of its dual-use nature, chlorine was not listed as part of the Syrian arsenal.

Chlorine gas, when inhaled, swallowed or exposed to through skin, causes difficulty in breathing, coughing, and eye and skin irritation. It is not as toxic or effective at killing as sarin, a nerve agent, and experts say it is difficult to achieve high concentrations of chlorine by dropping it from the air.

Insurgents have used chlorine gas in Iraq before. In May 2007, suicide bombers driving chlorine tankers struck three cities in the western Anbar province, killing two policemen and forcing about 350 Iraqi civilians and six US troops to seek treatment for gas exposure.

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