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The Islamic State May Be Using Saddam's Chemical Weapons Against the Kurds

Photos of dead Kurdish fighters in Kobane suggest that they were exposed to chemical agents — and have touched off a renewed debate about WMD in Iraq.

by Ryan Faith
Oct 15 2014, 6:55pm

Photo by Jerome Delay/AP

The Islamic State may now be using chemical weapons. That's according to a report recently released by the Middle East Review of International Affairs that contains photos of Kurdish forces killed while defending the besieged Syrian town of Kobane. The Kurds appear to have been exposed to chemical weapons — presumably a blister agent — used by Islamic State militants.

At the most fundamental level, the accusations shouldn't be a terribly huge surprise.

Between the publication of articles justifying the ongoing sexual enslavement of captured Yazidi women and the Islamic State's disturbing fascination with beheadings, the idea that the group would get the heebie-jeebies over the idea of using chemical weapons is somewhere between totally laughable and a mighty hard sell.

Yazidi women captured by the Islamic State suffer a terrible fate. Read more here.

It's also widely known that the Islamic State more or less has chemical weapons. In June, they overran a known Iraqi chemical weapons facility at al Muthanna (a.k.a. Samarra). While the facility hasn't been an active production site for at least 11 years, it was a site where chemical weapons declared by Saddam Hussein were left inside bunkers that were subsequently sealed with varying degrees of exactitude.

The US State Department played down that threat. In a June 20 press briefing, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, "it poses serious health hazards to anyone attempting to access the bunkers… but these are not intact chemical weapons, and it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to use them in a military capacity."

This is all a matter of life and death to those in and around Kobane, as Kurds once again appear to be the victims of Saddam's chemical weapons. In the West, however, it's increasingly a matter of nasty politics.

On the one hand, as a military tool, the effective use of chemical weapons is more art than science. Delivering the munition effectively, accounting for wind patterns, and gauging the persistence of the chemical agent are all complex tasks. So while Islamic State fighters may be effective in loosening the hold of the remaining Kurdish fighters in and around Kobane, it's another matter entirely whether they possess the skills to leverage any chemical weapons they've been able to salvage.

The militants could have dug up enough aging Baathist army veterans with expertise in chemical warfare to not make a complete hash of it. Or it could be that there's a 17-year-old semiliterate ex-goatherd in charge of them, in which case the chemicals will be as big a danger to the Islamic State as to anyone.

Islamic State insurgent cells cause death and discrimination behind Iraq's front lines. Read more here.

This is all a matter of life and death to those in and around Kobane, as Kurds once again appear to be the victims of Saddam's chemical weapons. In the West, however, it's increasingly a matter of nasty politics. Just as President Barack Obama's initial announcement of action against the Islamic State has been a chance to re-litigate America's withdrawal from Iraq, the Islamic State seems to be furnishing the West with an opportunity to return to the contentious, frustrating, outrage-filled debate about WMD that attended the Iraq War.

Partisan ideologues have started jumping on the existence of Iraqi chemical weapons as proof for and against just about every conceivable position in the debate. Already the return of the US to combat in Iraq has sparked some creative remembrance, and it's inevitable that we will continue to rewrite the history of the Iraq War for years and decades to come.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan