MOSUL, IRBIL, IRAQ - “We can’t sleep at night because it’s hard to breath and our eyes are watering,” says Yunis Mohammad Hassan, a father of three, outside his Mosul home in the Noor area.
On Tuesday, a bomb hit his neighbor’s house releasing rancid-smelling white smoke, sickening the family and people in the surrounding area.
It was one of at least four similar attacks in the past 10 days, prompting international organizations to warn that Islamic State militants could be using chemical weapons against civilians in eastern Mosul.
Police confirm the bomb and another that hit a home in the nearby Mishraq neighborhood the same day contained homemade chemical poisons. Victims among the 15 people treated in the West Emergency hospital in Irbil say they are from Garage Shmel and Zahoor, two other east Mosul neighborhoods.
The International Committee of the Red Cross says testing is not yet conclusive, but symptoms of the hospitalized patients suggest the weapon was mustard gas. Two victims are in critical condition and at least five are children.
The United Nations says if these attacks are confirmed they would constitute war crimes. Local police play down the incidents, stressing most of the injuries were minor.
“If IS had powerful chemical weapons they would be using them to attack soldiers,” says Brig. Gen. Watheq al-Hamdani of the Ninewa Police, the provincial police authority in Mosul. IS is currently defending its last stronghold in Mosul’s western side fiercely, unleashing barrages of car bombs, sniper fire and mortars on Iraqi forces.
The bombs police investigated, adds al-Hamdani, contained chlorine gas, a poison that, like mustard gas, can cause respiratory problems, blistering burns, and other symptoms.
At the hospital, Natham Hamad’s wife and five children are being treated for some of the most severe injuries the attacks caused.
“The doctors say they may get better, then again get worse,” says Hamad of his two sons, 11 and 12 years old. His two-month-old baby is in stable condition. “We don’t yet know if they will ever recover entirely.”
Locals say conflicting information and constant coughing, watering eyes and other health problems have families worried about their long-term health.
“We all have the same problems from the poison,” says Hassan’s wife, Abeer Ahmed Ibrahim.
A small crowd gathers under an awning near a bombed house, taped off with an orange plastic strip that reads: “Danger, do not enter” in English and Arabic. The neighbors complain bitterly about the lack of comprehensive local health care in Mosul.
“We are suffering so much from this gas,” says Hassan. “I go to the clinic every day, but there is no medicine.”
Many people that came in contact with the bombsites say their symptoms developed later.
“It’s not necessarily something that will affect you right away,” says Dr. Johannes Schad of the ICRC, explaining some victims escaped the initial release of poison fast enough to protect themselves, but days after returned to clean their houses, developing symptoms hours or days later, consistent with mustard gas poisoning.
Amid the chaos of the war with IS that has displaced more than 200,000 people in less than five months, identifying patients is difficult for Iraq’s already strained health care system, according to Schad.
Residents in Mishraq, where a bomb exploded Tuesday and set a house on fire in addition to emitting foul-smelling gas, say after two-and-a-half years of Islamic State rule followed by months of war, fearing more poison bombs is almost unbearable.
Five days after the house was destroyed, standing near the bomb still induces a metallic taste in the mouth.
“I could see the fire from my room where I was studying,” says Ahmed Dorite, 19, a student with a glass eye from a mortar attack on his area in December. Two other young men in the neighborhood, also named Ahmed, died in that attack. “And you could smell it immediately.”
Islamic State Threat
Primary school teacher Wissam Araf Rashid says, "About three weeks ago Islamic State threatened to attack us with chemical weapons.” In a hospital room with his wife, Zaina, he adds, “At first we didn’t believe it.”
“And then they did it,” says Zaina.
And despite the relative weakness of the alleged chemical weapons, analysts say they could complicate Iraqi and coalition forces' battle for the remainder of western Mosul in the coming weeks and months.
“ISIS has entrenched itself it west Mosul, using cellars and caches, as well as rounding up population to be used as human shields,” says Yan St-Pierre of the Berlin-based security firm MOSECON. “In such an instance, chemical weapons don't need to be extremely developed or used via highly technical means, but simply used as part of traps and ambushes.”