WASHINGTON — The Islamic State is suspected of using chemical agents — said by some American officials to be mustard gas — in an attack on Kurdish fighters in northern Syria two weeks ago, United States officials said Friday.

If authenticated, the chemical attack would be an escalation of the more than yearlong conflict underway in Iraq and Syria, and could increase pressure on the Obama administration to intervene more forcefully in the war against the Sunni militant group.

The Pentagon said Friday that it also was looking into reports of another possible mustard gas attack this week on Kurdish fighters — this one in Makhmur, Iraq. Kurdish news media reports on Thursday quoted local officials saying that mortar rounds fired at Kurdish positions in Makhmur may have contained mustard gas because the wounds to injured pesh merga fighters were different from those in a conventional attack.

“We’ve seen those reports and we’re taking them seriously,” Col. Patrick S. Ryder, a spokesman for the United States Central Command, said in a telephone briefing with reporters Friday. He added, “At this point, we really don’t know what, if anything, may have been used.”

Colonel Ryder declined to say whether the United States has sent independent inspectors to verify the attacks.

The question is complicated by history. Kurds have suffered chemical attacks in the past, but since 2002 various Kurdish officials seeking Western support have highlighted stories of chemical attacks and chemical weapons stocks that were never confirmed.

But on Friday two American officials said the defense and intelligence community had come to believe that mustard gas was used two weeks ago in the northern Syria attack, which injured several Kurdish fighters.

That view, one official said, had prompted assessments that the Makhmur report this week was “plausible.”

The Kurdish claims were not independently verifiable, and further details of the purported attacks were scarce.

At least hundreds of old and often corroded mustard artillery shells remained in Iraq after the United States invaded in 2003. By 2004, Sunni insurgents had begun occasionally using the shells in improvised bombs against American forces.

But Kurdish claims of mortar shells containing mustard gas being fired, as opposed to being used in hidden explosives, were new and do not match past insurgent patterns.

On Thursday, the Kurdish news media outlet Rudaw quoted a Kurdish commander, Muhammad Khoshawi, as saying that on Wednesday night “at least 45 mortar rounds were fired at our positions, which we believe were loaded with chemicals, since the wounds are different.” He said that evidence had been sent for examination, but that there were no conclusive results.

The attack this week in which the Islamic State may have used mustard gas was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

For President Obama, a confirmed use of chemical weapons by the Islamic State could increase the pressure for him to move more forcefully against the militant group.

The newest reports also come as Mr. Obama’s success in forcing President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to renounce his chemical weapons and turn that arsenal over to the West for destruction is coming under assault.

There have been reports this year of chemical weapons being used in Syria, both by the Assad government and by the Islamic State. Earlier this year there were reports that the Syrian government had bombarded areas held by insurgents with chlorine-filled barrel bombs. Unlike mustard gas, chlorine was not banned under a Russian-American agreement with Syria to remove and destroy its chemical weapons. But it is barred by international convention.

Administration officials said Friday that they believed the Islamic State had several times used chlorine gas against Kurdish fighters.

The president has been loath to commit American ground troops to fight the Islamic State, and the introduction of chemical weapons to the battlefield may only reinforce that reluctance inside the White House, one administration official said Friday.

While Mr. Obama has been willing to authorize airstrikes against the Islamic State, an enemy of Syria and the United States, he has resisted becoming directly involved in the fight to topple Mr. Assad’s government.

But Mr. Obama has said that the use of chemical weapons would cross a red line that could force American action.



© Stringer
The US is investigating an alleged chemical attack by Islamic State against Kurdish militia in northern Iraq. Washington reportedly suggests the jihadists used mustard gas, while the Kurds believe it was chlorine, which is more dangerous.

The allegations of chemical arms use by Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) are taken very seriously, Alistair Baskey, the White House’s National Security Council spokesman, said.

“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 stressed.

Kurdish officials said their peshmerga forces were attacked with chemical weapons near the town of Makhmour, some 40 miles southwest of Erbil, on Tuesday.

The claims were confirmed by the German military, which has been training the Kurdish troops in the area since September of last year.

These were apparently chemical weapons. What it was exactly we don’t know,” the German ministry spokesman said, adding that around 60 Kurdish fighters suffered breathing difficulties as a result of the attack.

However, he didn’t specify the type of chemicals used by IS, only saying that experts had been sent to the scene to investigate.

Meanwhile, senior US officials told the Wall Street Journal that the chemical agent most likely employed in the jihadist attack in northern Iraq was mustard gas.

One of the sources said it makes “the most sense” that IS obtained the chemical agents in Syria, but there were also opinions that the mustard gas came from Saddam Hussein’s old stockpiles in Iraq.

US intelligence agencies are now looking into the source of the chemicals and the means by which they were delivered to the battlefield, the officials said.

Mustard gas causes painful burns and blisters that have a strong immobilizing effect on those who come into contact with it. However, the chemical has to be present in large quantities to become deadly.

However, Kurdish authorities in Iraq said that it was possibly chlorine gas that had been used against their Peshmerga forces, Reuters reported.

“Initial reporting indicates chemical agents were fired in the form of projectiles, possibly mortar rounds,” Kurdistan Region’s Security Council said in a statement.

If it was, in fact, chlorine that Islamic State militants used, this would be considered “a very disturbing development,” Brian Levin, director of the Centre for the Study of Hate and Extremism, told RT.

“Chlorine gas in particular can be devastating. About 1 million soldiers in WWI were affected by chlorine gas and other gases and about 90,000 were killed,” he said.

“Chlorine in particular has uses in industry and in household products, so chlorine is a much more accessible type of chemical agent than some of the others that are out there, which is why they are being used,” he added.

The use of chlorine as a weapon is banned under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention.

When inhaled, the gas turns into hydrochloric acid in the lungs with lethal effect, as the victim drowns in the bodily fluids resulting from the burns.

Levin believes that the use of chemical weapons may well lead to a change in the international approach to Islamic State.

“[ISIS] has been a second priority for most of the actors in the region and in the West and it might be that it is going to become a first priority, particularly if the use of chemical weapons becomes more widespread. This is a red line and we are right at it,” he said.

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