The Islamic State (IS) launched two attacks using chemical weapons on a town in northern Iraq early on Saturday, Iraqi officials told the Associated Press, a week after US-led coalition airstrikes targeted the militant group's chemical facilities.
A 3-year-old girl was killed and around 600 people were reportedly injured in the small town of Taza, not far from Kirkuk. Hundreds more are said to have fled their homes. Helmi Hamdi, a nurse at the Taza hospital, told the AP that the wounded were being treated for infected burns, suffocation from the chemical agents, and dehydration. Eight people in severe condition were transported to a hospital in Baghdad, which is about 170 miles south of Kirkuk.
"There is fear and panic among the women and children," Adel Hussein, a local official in Taza, told AP. "They're calling for the central government to save them."
The attack on Saturday was the second Taza has seen this week. On Wednesday, around 40 people were injured when rockets that reportedly carried chemical agents hit the town. Taza, which is predominantly populated by Shiite Turkmen, has withstood heavy bombardment from IS for months.
The capacity of IS to wage chemical warfare has remained a source of grave concern for Iraqi and US-led coalition officials. The group is reportedly operating a chemical weapons research lab, headed by Iraqi chemists who developed weapons programs under Saddam Hussein.
But the recent capture of Sulayman Dawud al Bakkar, a "significant operative" in IS chemical weapons program, was a big win for US and Iraqi military officials. Al Bakkar, also known as Abu Dawud, reportedly gave up valuable information regarding the group's chemical weapons labs, which led to two targeted airstrikes.
In a Department of Defense press briefing on Friday, US Army Colonel Steve Warren downplayed the threat posed by IS developing chemical weapons. "It's a legitimate threat" Warren told reporters. "It's not a high threat. We're not, frankly, losing too much sleep over it."
The colonel added that US military forces were accustomed to operating in "a chemical environment," so the threat was "nothing new to us."
Warren said that military officials were still trying to establish the exact number of times that IS militants had deployed chemical weapons.
"They used two chemicals primarily," Warren said. "One is chlorine, the other one is sulfur mustard, which is a blister agent."
"They've lost one of their principal chemical weapon production facilities, which we struck the other day," added Warren. "So they've got less of it now than they did last week, I can tell you that. How much total they have, that's to be determined."
Officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told the AP that special forces are planning further raids on chemical weapons facilities and experts. Pentagon officials said during briefings following the capture of al Bakkar that they could not disclose too much information regarding what they have gleaned due to ongoing operations. On Wednesday, Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said that they had confirmed that IS fighters "have used chemical weapons in both Iraq and Syria."
While sulfur mustard and chlorine are considered to be more innocuous than other chemical agents, Davis said that they can be dangerous when deployed in large doses.
A German and American forensics team have reportedly arrived in Taza to investigate the presence of chemical agents. In 2014, Taza was the site of a brutal massacre carried out by IS that left at least 40 dead.
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