Chemical arms in ISIS territory in Iraq spark fear
With a recent report revealing that the U.S. government had tried to hide the extent to which its troops were exposed to chemical weapons in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, fears are mounting that extremist militants could possibly use the antiquated arms which are reportedly stored in ISIS-held territories in Iraq.
The New York Times reported Wednesday, citing intelligence documents and former soldiers, that American forces uncovered 5,000 warheads, shells and bombs filled with chemical agents but their findings were kept secret.
The newspaper, citing government papers obtained through the Freedom of Information Act request, said although U.S. forces never found evidence of an active program, they did find remnants of an aging chemical arsenal.
While the U.S. government said the abandoned weapons no longer pose a threat, there are fears that militants could use these arms in the production of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), The British Independent newspaper reported Wednesday.
The UK paper also reported “that this summer the Iraqi government said it had witnessed intruders looting the corroded equipment before their surveillance cameras were shut off” in the ISIS-controlled and unguarded region where chemical weapons are reportedly present.
A spokesperson for the Pentagon/ or a confidential source at the Pentagon? also told the New York Times that the suspected weapons had to be destroyed “promptly.”
“These suspect weapons were recovered under circumstances in which prompt destruction was dictated by the need to ensure that the chemical weapons could not threaten the Iraqi people, neighboring states, coalition forces, or the environment,” a statement read.
Former colonel sounds the alarm
Meanwhile, a former commander of the British Army’s chemical and nuclear weapons protection forces sounded the alarm that ISIS militants could possibly make dirty bombs as it has the capability of doing so.
Ex-colonel Hamish de Bretton-Gordon told The National Post that ISIS had shown it was determined to use chemical arms in Syria, and now the militants are said to have made “significant” advances in Iraq despite the U.S.-led air strikes targeting the radical group.
“These materials are not as secure as we had been led to believe and now pose some significant threat to the coalition in Iraq fighting ISIS,” he said.
Before the 2003 invasion, President George W. Bush insisted Baghdad was hiding an active weapons of mass destruction program.
No evidence of an active program
Meanwhile, the New York Times report show that the U.S. forces never found evidence of an active program but found remnants of an aging chemical arsenal and often they were not trained nor equipped to handle it.
Members of Congress were only partially informed about the chemical weapons and American soldiers were told to keep silent or to offer misleading accounts of what they found, the paper reported.
One former U.S. Army sergeant who suffered from mustard burns in 2007 and was reportedly denied hospital treatment and medical evacuation told the Times: “I felt more like a guinea pig than a wounded soldier.”
Responding to the article, the Pentagon said it has always been open about U.S. forces finding chemical agents in Iraq as far back as 2006.
Officials did not confirm allegations that troops were instructed to play down injuries or hide their findings, but spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby acknowledged that about 20 service members from 2004 to 2011 were exposed to nerve or mustard agents
“Right now our best estimate is, it’s around 20 that we believe through that period … were exposed to chemical ammunition,” Kirby told a news conference.
An official tally had remained classified, according to the Times.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel “is concerned by any indication or allegation that our troops have not received the care and administrative support they deserve,” Kirby said earlier in an email.
All of the chemical weapons found by U.S. forces were made before 1991 in a rush by Saddam Hussein’s regime to bolster its arsenal during its war with neighboring Iran, the paper said.
In most cases, the weapons were designed in the United States, manufactured in European countries and assembled in chemical agent production lines built in Iraq by Western firms, according to the Times.
Not only did government secrecy prevent some troops from receiving proper medical care for injuries from chemical agents, it also meant the soldiers lost out on receiving medals or other official recognition of their wounds, the paper reported.