ISIS chem­i­cal at­tack sus­pected as Mo­sul res­i­dents seek care

A dozen show symp­toms in­clud­ing burns, blis­ters and breath­ing prob­lems

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY LOVE­DAY MOR­RIS love­day.mor­ris@wash­post.com Mustafa Salim con­trib­uted to this re­port.

irbil, iraq — Twelve peo­ple from the em­bat­tled city of Mo­sul, in­clud­ing a 2-month-old baby, have been treated for sus­pected ex­po­sure to a blis­ter­ing chem­i­cal agent, medics said Satur­day, as Is­lamic State mil­i­tants strike back at gov­ern­ment-held neigh­bor­hoods while try­ing to hold off ad­vanc­ing gov­ern­ment forces.

The pa­tients, who were be­ing treated in a hospi­tal in the north­ern Kur­dish city of Irbil, dis­played symp­toms of a chem­i­cal at­tack, in­clud­ing blis­ters, burns, res­pi­ra­tory prob­lems, ir­ri­ta­tion to the eyes and vom­it­ing. They de­scribed three sep­a­rate at­tacks with rock­ets car­ry­ing gas over the past week on neigh­bor­hoods in east­ern Mo­sul re­cap­tured by gov­ern­ment forces.

“There was a hiss of gas, and then we were suf­fo­cat­ing,” said Zeina Fawzi, who was sit­ting in the kitchen with her hus­band when a rocket ex­ploded out­side the door. She and her hus­band said it dis­persed black oily droplets that cov­ered the kitchen walls. She pulled on her dress to re­veal a blis­ter on her shoul­der.

The mil­i­tants, who still con­trol much of the western side of the city, have reg­u­larly bom­barded the east­ern side with mor­tars and rock­ets, caus­ing mis­ery for civil­ians liv­ing there. More than 1 mil­lion civil­ians were still in the city when the of­fen­sive to re­take it be­gan nearly five months ago.

Iraqi se­cu­rity forces have at­tempted to keep peo­ple in their homes, but the num­ber of those flee­ing has es­ca­lated in re­cent days as the se­cu­rity forces make in­roads into the packed western neigh­bor­hoods.

About 10,000 peo­ple are flee­ing each day, ac­cord­ing to Jas­sim Mo­hammed al-Jaff, Iraq’s min­is­ter for mi­gra­tion and dis­place­ment. A to­tal of 43,806 peo­ple have fled western Mo­sul since Feb. 25, in­clud­ing 15,400 peo­ple in the past two days, the United Na­tions said. More than 200,000 peo­ple have been forced from their homes since the op­er­a­tion be­gan.

The use of a “blis­ter­ing chem­i­cal agent” in a densely pop­u­lated city is “com­pletely un­ac­cept­able” and con­sti­tutes a war crime, said Lise Grande, the U.N. hu­man­i­tar­ian co­or­di­na­tor for Iraq. She said tests are be­ing con­ducted to de­ter­mine the na­ture of the agent.

Some of the vic­tims were told that it was prob­a­bly mus­tard gas, which was used on the bat­tle­field for the first time dur­ing World War I.

Among the most se­verely in­jured were a mother and her five chil­dren in an at­tack Thurs­day on Mo­sul’s north­east­ern Gi­raj al-Shi­mal district. The chil­dren were be­tween 2 months and 11 years old, said John Schad, a doc­tor with the In­ter­na­tional Com­mit­tee of the Red Cross. In the room be­hind him, one of the young boys lay in his hospi­tal bed with rel­a­tives at his side, his face se­verely swollen and ban­dages around his head. A 3-year-old girl is in crit­i­cal con­di­tion, Schad said, adding that they would all “most prob­a­bly” re­cover.

Two of the 12 pa­tients be­ing treated had been dis­charged, he said.

Yahya Qas­sim said he was about 100 yards from his home in the Mishraq neigh­bor­hood when a mis­sile landed in his wa­ter tank around 5 p.m. Mon­day and re­leased a green­ish gas with a foul odor.

His fam­ily of 13, in the gar­den when the rocket hit, rushed in­side. They cov­ered their faces with wet cloths be­fore flee­ing their home. Qas­sim, who was ex­posed for longer and went back to clean the house along with his 26-year-old son, suf­fered from eye ir­ri­ta­tion and a burn on his nose. The other fam­ily mem­bers were un­harmed.

Fawzi’s hus­band, Wis­sam Rashid, 46, was be­ing treated in the same room for mild symp­toms and had a burn mark on his head af­ter a rocket at­tack Sun­day in Mo­sul’s Zuhoor neigh­bor­hood. The rocket was about 5 feet long, he said.

“I changed my clothes and had a shower, but it was still burn­ing my skin,” he said.

Iraqi au­thor­i­ties, un­likely to want to cre­ate mass panic in the city, have de­nied that sus­pected chem­i­cal at­tacks have taken place.

The Or­ga­ni­za­tion for the Pro­hi­bi­tion of Chem­i­cal Weapons has pre­vi­ously con­firmed that mus­tard gas was used in an at­tack by the Is­lamic State on Kur­dish pesh­merga forces in 2015. But this is the first time a blis­ter­ing agent is sus­pected to have been used in Mo­sul. Pre­vi­ously dur­ing the of­fen­sive, civil­ians and sol­diers have been treated for breath­ing dif­fi­cul­ties con­sis­tent with chlo­rine gas use.

It is not known how the mil­i­tants ob­tained mus­tard gas, but it could have been seized from Syr­ian gov­ern­ment stock­piles. Former CIA di­rec­tor John Brennan, who stepped down in Jan­uary, said in an in­ter­view last year with CBS’s “60 Min­utes” that the agency be­lieved the Is­lamic State had “the abil­ity to man­u­fac­ture small quan­ti­ties of chlo­rine and mus­tard gas.”

Still, it is con­ven­tional weapons that are caus­ing by far the most ca­su­al­ties in Mo­sul. In an ad­ja­cent room were two men in­jured in an airstrike.

Is­lamic State mil­i­tants had come to their home in Mo­sul’s Mamoun neigh­bor­hood to use their roof as a sniper point, said their cousin Thaer Ahmed, 27. The mil­i­tants told the ex­tended fam­ily of 20 peo­ple to gather in rooms down­stairs, but an airstrike hit the house.

“We rushed to get them out, but they were all un­der the rub­ble,” said Ahmed, who lived op­po­site the oth­ers. He said he was not sure whether it was an Iraqi air force strike or one by the U.S.-led coali­tion.

The two broth­ers and three sis­ters sur­vived. They lost their mother, fa­ther, two broth­ers, two sis­ters-in-law, four sis­ters, four neph­ews and their grand­mother.

AZAD LASHKARI/REUTERS

A mother stays with a child be­ing treated at a hospi­tal in Irbil for pos­si­ble ex­po­sure to a blis­ter­ing chem­i­cal agent. Pa­tients de­scribed three sep­a­rate at­tacks with rock­ets car­ry­ing gas in the past week on neigh­bor­hoods in east­ern Mo­sul re­cap­tured by Iraqi gov­ern­ment forces.

AZAD LASHKARI/REUTERS

Yasser Hamid Nadm, 11, is among the pa­tients whose in­juries are thought to be from a chem­i­cal.

KHALID MO­HAMMED/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Dima Nazim, 2, is also hos­pi­tal­ized. Some vic­tims said they were told the chem­i­cal was mus­tard gas.

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