Mosul and the threat of chemical attacks

March 12, 2017 12:06 am | Updated 07:24 am IST

Smoke rises following an airstrike in western Mosul on March 6, 2017, during an offensive by Iraqi forces to retake the western parts of the city from Islamic State (IS) group.

Smoke rises following an airstrike in western Mosul on March 6, 2017, during an offensive by Iraqi forces to retake the western parts of the city from Islamic State (IS) group.

Early this month, the International Committee of the Red Cross issued a statement condemning “in the strongest possible terms” the use of chemical weapons in Mosul, the second largest city of Iraq where the Iraqi troops have been fighting the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group for over four months.

The Red Cross said seven people, including children, with symptoms consistent with an exposure to a toxic chemical agent were being treated at a hospital in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Later, the World Health Organisation raised the number of the affected to 12. According to WHO, and authorities at the West Erbil Emergency Hospital, the symptoms, such as blisters, redness in the eyes, irritation, vomiting and coughing, are that of chemical attacks.

Who is behind the assault

The needle of suspicion points to the IS. The attack happened in the eastern part of Mosul, which has for weeks been under the Iraqi troops’ control. The city has been divided into east and west by the Tigris river. When the Iraqi troops began the battle for Mosul in October 2016, they started by attacking the eastern suburbs of the city, slowing making moves into the IS’s power centres. The city’s administrative buildings and airport are in the western part. Though eastern Mosul is liberated, in early March, it was within reach of IS fighters’ rockets and mortar shells from the west. One theory is that the IS is targeting more civilians at a time when it is facing a huge military setback.

Chemical warfare capability

This is not the first time the IS has been accused of using chemical weapons. In September and October last year, IS fighters launched at least three chemical attacks in Qayyarah, 60 km south of Mosul. The attacks came after the town was recaptured by Iraqi troops. They caused painful burns to at least seven people consistent with exposure to low levels of a chemical warfare agent known as “vesicants,” or blister agents, the Human Rights Watch reported in November. According to the IHS Conflict Monitor, a London-based intelligence collection and analysis service, the IS has used chemical weapons, including chlorine and sulfur mustard agents, at least 52 times on battlefields in Syria and Iraq since 2014.

U.S. military officials have repeatedly warned of the IS’s chemical warfare capabilities. Chlorine is commercially available as an industrial chemical, and terrorist groups often use it to make bombs. But it’s not clear from where IS got sulfur mustard, a chemical warfare agent.

The regime of Saddam Hussein and that of Bashar al-Assad in Syria had possessed the weapons earlier. The Saddam regime is gone, and Syria gave up its chemical weapons as part of an international agreement to avoid American invasion. It is believed that the IS is involved in its production. In January, when the Iraqi troops recaptured Mosul University from IS, they found chemistry labs had been converted into makeshift weapons labs. Later, troops discovered mustard chemical warfare agent in the eastern part of the city.

The use of chemical and biological weapons is a war crime. Efforts to eradicate their use date back to the 19th century and the first universal ban came into effect after First World War.

In 1997, the Chemical Weapons Convention treaty prohibited the use and production of chemical weapons. At least 190 states have so far accepted the treaty, while 93% of the world’s declared stockpile of chemical weapons have been destroyed. But these regulations are meant for nation-states, whereas the attack in Mosul suggests that non-state terrorist actors also possess chemical weapons capabilities. As of now, the threats they pose could be minimal as their capacity to make high-grade weapons and delivery systems may be limited. Still, terror groups possessing chemical weapons poses a challenge to the international security architecture.

Stanly Johny

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