New York Times: Saddam-era chemical weapons now under ISIS control

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This photo shows graves of Kurdish people killed fighting alongside People's Protection Units (YPG) against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) jihadists for the control of the mainly-Kurdish Syrian key town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, in the cemetery of the Turkish town of Suruc, Sanliurfa province, on October 15, 2014. (Photo: AFP - Aris Messinis)

Published Thursday, October 16, 2014

Updated at 4:55 pm (GMT+3): The New York Times recently published an extensive report on the chemical weapons “legacy” in Iraq, raising questions regarding the areas now overrun by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Drawing on interviews with American soldiers and previously unreleased government documents, the exposé allegedly traces the origin of chemical warheads in Iraq reportedly used by ISIS.

According to the report, Al-Muthanna State Establishment – the former center of Iraq’s chemical warfare program – is now under ISIS control. “Although incidents with chemical arms were scattered across Iraq, many were clustered near the ruined complex,” the New York Times explained.

The establishment allegedly contains two contaminated bunkers, 13 and 41, with bunker 41 containing cyanide precursors and old sarin rockets, and it overshadows an area where the marine had found mustard gas shells in 2008.

According to a UN report compiled after the departure of UN inspectors and released in 2004, bunker 41 contained “2,000 empty 155mm artillery shells contaminated with the chemical warfare agent mustard, 605 one-ton mustard containers with residues, and heavily contaminated construction material.”

It is not clear whether the chemical weapons held in the facility, which were allegedly made before 1991, were still useable.

The classified location, which was once guarded by the Iraqi army with the intention of destroying the establishment, is now in the hands of ISIS militants since mid-June.

The report goes further to explain the US government’s secrecy regarding alleged incidents of American soldiers being contaminated by the chemical weapons. As the New York Times research reportedly showed, “the munitions appeared to have been designed in the United States, manufactured in Europe and filled in chemical agent production lines built in Iraq by Western companies.”

During the Iran-Iraq war, when Iraq’s then-president Saddam Hussein went arms shopping, the US exported shells and the technology behind these weapons, leading to their presence in the region. These arm deals consequently caused much harm to Iraqis and Americans years later, now possibly exposing the world to the growing danger of ISIS controlling chemical weapons.

An article by Hady Salameh published in July in the Lebanese online newspaper, Al-Modon cites Nisan Ahmed, health minister of the Kurdish authority in the Syrian town of Kobane. Ahmed established a medical team to examine the photos of Kurdish suffering from ISIS strikes in the village of Adviko near Kobane, which he said appeared to show chemical blisters.

According to Ahmed, the bodies of three Kurdish fighters showed no signs of damage from bullets. Rather, “burns and white spots on the bodies of the dead indicated the use of chemicals, which led to death without any visible wounds or external bleeding.” It is unclear whether these allegedly chemical-related deaths are tied to the Iraqi chemical arsenal.

The article also cites a field source in Syria that claims chemical weapons shipments arrived from the Iraqi territories to the northern Syrian town of Al-Raqah.

A technical ISIS unit called the “chemical war” reportedly supervises the movement, installation, and usage of chemical weapons.

The Israeli journal Middle Eastern Review of International Affairs (MERIA) published this week an article by Jonathan Spyer building up on the information provided by Salameh’s piece.

Basing the report on observation of ISIS victims, and recounting ISIS control over the Muthanna establishment in Iraq, the study asserts that ISIS are not only in control of chemical warheads, but also have the ability to use them in combat.

The aftermath of the spread of US weaponry in the region seems to have a rippling effect as ISIS spread their control.

In September, a study by the London-based small-arms organization Conflict Armament Research claimed that ISIS jihadists appear to be using US military-issued arms and weapons supplied to the so-called moderate rebels in Syria by Saudi Arabia.

The report documented weapons seized by Kurdish forces from militants in Iraq and Syria over a 10-day period in July.

The report said the jihadists disposed of "significant quantities" of US-made small arms – including M-16 assault rifles – and included photos showing the markings "Property of US Govt" on the weapons.

It also found that anti-tank rockets used by ISIS in Syria were "identical to M79 rockets transferred by Saudi Arabia to forces operating under the Free Syrian Army umbrella in 2013."

The rockets were made in former Yugoslavia in the 1980s.

In neighboring Iraq, ISIS jihadists seized significant quantities of US equipment from the Iraqi army when soldiers abandoned positions in northern areas after a militant offensive in June.

The group captured a number of American-made Humvee armored vehicles, which are now being targeted in US air strikes, and has reportedly used them in suicide bombings against Iraqi forces on at least two occasions.

The United States spent billions of dollars training and arming Iraqi security forces over a period of years, and both American and Iraqi officials have repeatedly said they were ready to maintain internal security after US troops departed at the end of 2011.

(Al-Akhbar, AFP)

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