AHMAD Rasool remembers the clouds of mustard gas vividly. It was mid-afternoon in August, when Islamic State mortars began to rain down on his position in Makhmour, northern Iraq – a relatively common occurrence on the frontlines in the war-torn north.
However this time was different. Gas began to fill the air as the mortars smashed into the ground. It was like nothing Rasool had seen before: he and his small unit of 20 had just become the victims of the first chemical weapons attack on Iraq’s soil since the reign of Saddam Hussein.
“They attacked with mortars, there was gas, but it wasn’t until after a few minutes that suddenly I had to really scratch my back,” Rasool said. “Red spots then started to appear on my skin, it was like boils, I had to scratch it constantly. I had never come across this kind of attack before. I didn’t know what to do. Some of the other soldiers, their skin and hands were swelling up.”
Since that day, Makhmour has been targeted another four times with both chlorine and mustard gas.
As the Islamic State has lost ground in Iraq over the past few months, the militant group appears to have changed its tactics. Digging in and fortifying Mosul – Islamic State’s largest city – has been coupled with an increasing use of chemical weapons causing panic and disarray on Iraq’s frontlines. Mortar bombs made simply of metal pipes, but also more sophisticated weaponry such as 122mm Grad rockets with a firing distance of 20 kilometres, have been modified to carry the potentially lethal agent.
“There’s a big difference between normal attacks and chemical attacks,” said Rasool.
They use anything they have to survive, without even considering the lives of civilians
“With the chemical attack it isn’t clear what is going to happen, what the harm will be. For me, it is more dangerous than a normal attack.”
A spokesman for Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Malik Ellahi, said that the repeated reports of chemical weapons use was a “matter of serious concern”.
On 25 February, Islamic State militants launched chemical rockets on Sinjar, the remote corner of northern Iraq where Islamic State attempted genocide against the local Yazidi population. Nineteen rockets, suspected to have contained chlorine gas, were fired.
Nearly 200 people were treated for severe vomiting, nausea, and headaches.
On 2 March, Tel Afar district near Sinjar was also hit by a chemical attack in which at least six rockets were seen emitting a yellow smoke on impact. Three civilians, including two children, were hospitalised with nausea, vomiting, and skin irritation. On 12 March, Taza, an Iraqi town near Kirkuk, was subjected to a large chemical attack as a barrage of rockets rained down on the settlement injuring 600 people and killing a child.
Peshmerga Commander Mahadi Younis in Makhmour believes the weapons are being manufactured in nearby Mosul. Younis said the militants are experimenting all the time, and that the deadliness of the weapons will increase as the months go on.
“They are experimenting with new tactics, and new ways of fighting us,” Younis explained. “With the chemical attacks that are happening here in Makhmour, they seem to be experimenting with each attack. I expect everything from them now. They use anything they have to survive, without even considering the lives of civilians.”
Earlier this month, Marwan Ahmad, who lives in the small village of Keske near Dohuk, north of Mosul, described the panic as 20 chemical-laden rockets, which he suspects to be chlorine, struck the homes of civilians and their surroundings. Ahmad was sitting in his house, when the attack started.
“I was just inside, and the rockets started coming down. I saw the smoke, and tears started running down my face, my skin was itchy, it started to go red, and it bubbled.”
Ahmad now worries that similar, more lethal attacks, will follow in the coming weeks and months, especially as rumours continue of an upcoming coalition advance on Islamic State controlled Mosul.
It is thought that the Islamic State has only been producing chemical weaponry over the past year, and that the longer the militants have in honing their weapon-making skills, the more lethal the chemical attacks will become.
Lieutenant Muhammed Sabri of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces believes that as the Islamic State continues to weaken, chemical attacks will continue. It is a sign of the militants’ desperation as they lose ground on the battlefield.
“Now we expect them,” said Sabri. “Last night we got information, and were expecting four chemical gifts from Daesh [Islamic State]. They have been weakened recently, and this is their response. Now, it is normal for us.”