ISIL resorts to using poison gas to slow Iraq troops in Mosul

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MOSUL // Cornered and on the brink of defeat, ISIL has resorted to the widespread use of poison gas to slow the advance of Iraqi troops in Mosul.

Iraqi special forces fighting in Mosul and the Federal Police units deployed in support have been the target of sustained gas attacks since at least April, officers and soldiers in the city have told The National. The gas used in these attacks is thought to be chlorine or mustard gas.

The battle to liberate the city from the terror group is entering its final stages after seven months of bitter fighting. Recent gains by the military has reduced the area under ISIL control to just over 10 per cent of the city on the west bank of the Tigris river, said Brigadier General Yahya Rasool, spokesman for the Iraqi high command.

The insurgents remain entrenched in the historic old city, but are steadily losing ground in the suburbs to the north-west. Unable to stem the Iraqi advance, ISIL has turned to chemical weapons, which it delivers in mortar shells or leaves behind in crude explosive devices as they retreat. In the confused fighting over the dense urban maze of west Mosul, there is little to prevent the extremists from launching gas attacks at the military.

“We can’t stop them, Daesh can fire mortars from anywhere. We have given our soldiers advice on how to deal with such attacks, and have distributed gas masks,” said Lieutenant Colonel Muhanned of the elite Emergency Response Division (ERD).

His unit, which is now advancing through the Hay Al Aiqtisadiiyn area of west Mosul, was first exposed to poison gas on April 21 in the nearby Thawra neighbourhood. Mortar shells exploding near the commander’s vehicle spilt liquid on the concrete, and yellow smoke rose into the air. Fifteen men were hospitalised after inhaling the gas, and one soldier died from the toxic fumes.

Since then, Lieutenant Colonel Muhanned’s unit has been hit repeatedly by gas attacks. The officer refused to divulge the total number of casualties sustained in ISIL’s chemical weapons attacks, but it is clear that they can be a significant disruption to Iraqi advances.

Lieutenant Muntathar Al Jazair was leading an ERD platoon in an assault on ISIL positions in Thawra on April 21 when a mortar shell smashed into the tarmac. A yellow, reeking smoke reached the Lieutenant, who was hospitalised with four of his soldiers. Of the five men, two remain in hospital with severe burns caused by the gas.

“We carry gas masks with us now. We might have to use them,” said Lieutenant Al Jazair, who is back on the frontline in Hay Al Aiqtisadiiyn.

Federal Police units supporting the ERD have also been hit by gas attacks, the Lieutenant said. And Iraqi Special Operations Forces, another elite unit that fights alongside the ERD, has been regularly targeted since April, according to sources within the ISOF.

The ERD and ISOF are spearheading an assault in the north-west that is pushing towards the river, isolating pockets of ISIL resistance in an effort to gradually grind them down. It is a slow, methodical advance, designed to minimise losses after months of costly fighting.

As the Iraqis move forward, confining ISIL into an ever shrinking cauldron, their units are finding the sites used by ISIL to produce its chemical weaponry. Workshops for home-made mortar shells, explosives and suicide vehicles lie scattered across the city.

“We found bomb factories in the east too, but not as many as in the west. Two times we discovered poison gas in these factories,” said Majid Naji, an ERD bomb disposal expert.

At a base outside the city, Mr Naji showed The National one of the stashes his unit has discovered. Glass bottles holding a dark, heavy liquid have been carefully placed into a plastic bucket. A fuse is attached to the bottles, most of which have been wrapped in plastic foil to avoid accidental spillage. ISIL fighters were supposed to deposit these poison gas Molotov cocktails near Iraqi forces, light the fuse and make a quick escape, said Mr Najid. One bottle is sufficient to douse a whole neighbourhood in gas, he claimed.

Poison gas is not the only indiscriminate weapon the extremists have deployed to stave off defeat in Mosul. Suicide car bombs, a mainstay of ISIL’s defence of the city it took by storm in 2014, have been supersized into fuel tankers filled with explosives and oil, which cause huge destruction in the built-up residential areas of Mosul. The insurgents are using civilians as human shields against coalition air strikes, and are preventing families from leaving areas under their control.

It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of civilians are still in Mosul’s old city, where the extremists are expected to make a last stand. In the densely packed centre, the use of poison gas is likely to have catastrophic consequences.

After battling the militants for almost three years all over Iraq, Lieutenant Colonel Muhanned expects ISIL to make use of poison gas as the insurgents mount a fight to the death in the city’s historic core.

“Daesh will use gas on us again,” he said. There is not a hint of doubt in his voice.