Coming Soon to Iraq—Thousands of Chemical Warfare Suits
U.S. plans to equip Iraqi and Peshmerga divisions with 60,000 protective outfits
The United States is sending thousands of gas masks and chemical suits to Iraq—as it equips Iraqi army and Kurdish troops before an upcoming counter-offensive against Islamic State.
Islamic State has chemical weapons, but how much is both a big fear and also a bit of a mystery. There have been several engagements involving Islamic State fighters in both Iraq and Syria that included chemical weapons use.
The result is that American allies tasked with going head-to-head against the jihadist group risk inhaling poison gas.
The chemical protection gear is a small part of a $1.6-billion request the Pentagon sent to Congress on Nov. 20. The money will go towards equipping three Iraqi army divisions, three Kurdish brigades and a force of Anbari tribal fighters to roll back Islamic State.
The money pays for tens of thousands of M4 rifles, M240 machine guns and nearly 2,000 Carl Gustaf anti-tank weapons. That’s in addition to hundreds of mortars, shotguns and radios. And more than 2,000 trucks.
For the chemical-biological protective gear, the U.S. plans to equip the three Iraqi divisions with 45,000 M50 gas masks and hooded, sealed body-suits known as JLISTs. The Iraqi divisions will also receive 216 chemical detectors—used to test nerve, blood and blister agents. Another 15,000 masks and JLISTs, and 72 chemical detectors, will go to the Kurdish brigades.
The chemical threat is real. Although Islamic State has only used such weapons on a small scale.
On Sept. 15, Iraqi police held a position outside the town of Duluiyah when Islamic State fighters unleashed a cloud of bleach-smelling chlorine gas towards the Iraqi positions. Eleven police officers suffered injuries. “It was a strange explosion. We saw a yellow smoke in the sky,” one Iraqi cop told The Washington Post.
The Iraqi police retreated, coughing as they went.
Less clear is an attack on Kurdish troops near Kobane on July 12. Bodies of three Kurdish fighters killed in the village of Avdiko with white spots possibly caused by a chemical agent. On Oct. 21, more Kurdish troops fighting for Kobane began vomiting and suffering from outbreaks of red blisters—a sign of a potential exposure to chlorine gas.
To be sure, chlorine is a much less deadly weapon that nerve agents like sarin—which the Syrian regime used on civilians in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in August 2013. But it can still be demoralizing and debilitating. A cloud can stop an attack, or force an enemy to flee if they’re not wearing protection.
The good news is that in Iraq, at least, Islamic State hasn’t used chlorine much—and it’s a relatively weak weapon. But this also makes the attacks that have happened hard to verify.
It’s somewhat of a different story in Syria. In September, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons announced it possessed evidence that militants—although it did not name who—used chlorine gas “systematically and repeatedly” against villages in northern Syria in 2014.
The other question is whether Islamic State has made much use of captured chemical weapons. The militants overrun the Al Muthanna chemical weapons complex near Fallujah this summer—a relic of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons program.
But mustard gas artillery shells are likely the only weapon stored at the site that Islamic State could conceivably redeploy on the battlefield—and even that comes with horrendous risks to the militants tasked with pulling rusted, leaking chemical shells out of the crypt and firing them.
By contrast, chlorine is relatively easy and cheap to make. The jihadists can simply mix bleach and vinegar in a lab. They just have to produce enough to use effectively in the open—relying on the wind to carry the gas towards their enemies.
But that’s not so effective if the troops waiting on the other end are covered in protective suits and gas masks.