Brigadier General Hajar Ismail, director of coordination and relations for the Kurdistan regional government and Ministry of Peshmerga, talks to Gwyn Winfield about what chemical weapon attacks to expect in Northern Iraq
GW: What kind of chemicals are being used against the Kurds? Most media reports have stated that there have only been chlorine and mustard, but some have claimed usage of VX and other organophosphates (http://www.cbrneportal.com/interview-with-mr-lahur-jangi-talabani/).
HI: The first attacks against peshmerga positions were at the start of 2015, with a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIE). Many pershmerga were injured at that time, and we realised that ISIS was using chlorine. They then started attacking positions again in April 2015, using chemical gas, near Sinjar, and many more peshmerga were injured; this time they used a mortar. Step by step ISIS has moved from chlorine to mustard. In the beginning the distance of their mortar was limited but they have moved to 120mm mortars and that meant that they could make long distance attacks, later they used Katyusha multiple rocket launchers. Most of the time they have used chlorine and mustard against us. We have limited resources regarding detection, for example our military does not have a lab [so we cannot be sure that they have not used anything else]. When they first used mustard we requested that the OPCW and the Iraqi government come and take samples from around the peshmerga to confirm that they used mustard, but they did not use sarin. We don’t think they have used sarin, but we lack the detection resources to say that they definitely haven’t.
GW: Do you think they would use it if they had it? Or do you think that it would be a step too far, and would bring too much international intervention?
HI: ISIS will use everything if they have it. They are not human, and are against humanity. They will use everything against peshmerga forces, and they will use it in Iraq. They will use everything to increase their authority to control larger areas and civilians.
GW: As with the Kurds, one of the problems for Daesh is their lack of protective equipment. Do you think this is a reason why they are not using more potent agents, because if the wind changes it would also have a toxic impact on their own forces?
GW: In terms of a military chemical weapons strategy, at least from western media reports, it seems that they only fire three to four shells and don’t follow through the attack as we would expect from Nato doctrine. Is that accurate?
HI: ISIS has attacked peshmerga forces with chemical weapons, and step by step they increase the threat by using mustard gas and mortars designed specially for that purpose. We believe they want to test the usefulness of this type of attack on peshmerga forces and that they will use more chemical attacks when we go into Mosul.
GW: In terms of your experience, do you see them try and deny you ground with persistent mustard, or is this just testbed? Are they developing tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) for using it, or are they just doing so because they want to? Can they release sufficient agent to move people out of prepared positions or is it just nuisance attacks?
HI: Sometimes the threat to peshmerga forces is great as the wind conditions are against us, but sometimes it is not so great when the wind is in our favour – which is good for us! In Mosul Dam and Sinjar, which have a road connection with Raqah, they have used chemical attacks against us many times. They tried to gain control of the junction after the chemical attack, but we stayed and fought on, so they could not control it.
GW: Impressive! Holding ground under chemical attack without PPE is very difficult. How are you finding the training and awareness of chemical weapons among the peshmerga, in terms of what they can and can’t do?
HI: ISIS increases its chemical capability day by day. In the beginning the peshmerga had zero chemical protection, neither masks nor uniforms. Then the coalition started providing masks to the peshmerga, from Germany and the US and also Hamish [de Bretton-Gordon] from Avon. They also trained some of us in how to protect ourselves from chemical attacks. In Kurdistan we have the Kurdistan Training Coordination Centre (KTCC), where seven countries are training the peshmerga and sometimes there are lectures on chemical defence. They are trying to provide training on how better to prepare for attacks, but it is not enough. We have a lot of forces, 150,000 troops, spread out over eight sectors and the training provided by the coalition forces is limited to small units. We need more training and equipment in order to protect our troops as we believe Daesh will use more chemicals, especially when the Mosul operation starts soon.
GW: Do you think that part of the reason Daesh wants to use CW, which have been ineffective, is to ensure they are constantly in the Western media’s eye? If the media didn’t write about the attacks all the time then maybe they wouldn’t happen? Is it an active belief in the weapons or only a desire for coverage?
HI: In the beginning CW were not used effectively against us, but day by day their capability has increased. In one attack on Taza, south of Kirkuk, more than 600 individuals were injured with three dead, one woman and two kids. Using chemicals as gas has a positive effect on their psychology and a negative one on ours, it affects our morale. Thank God we have very high morale, and many injured peshmerga are fighting again after a few days in hospital, because their morale is high. We definitely need more protection, masks and suits, and also more chemical detection equipment, such as a lab. In the past we did not have a chemical unit for detection of attacks, but now we have a chemical protection company, and this unit needs a lot of resources, training, equipment and a lab. We have asked the coalition forces for them, especially Germany and the US, as well as the Iraqis. The Iraqis, however, do not provide enough for the peshmerga. They should provide everything for the peshmerga, budget, equipment, ammunition and training, as we are part of their defence system but they have not given a single dollar. When we started fighting Daesh the Iraqis sent some equipment and ammunition, but it was not enough, just sufficient for a battalion; they also sent some chemical masks, about 5,000, but not enough. Then there’s the gendarmerie that fight Daesh alongside the peshmerga. Although they are not from our army, these people are in the front line fighting Daesh. When these police are added to our forces we total about 200,000. Germany provided some training with two courses in that country for 15-20 personnel, and we have plans for 20 more to go next month to follow a train the trainer concept.
GW: In terms of training what do you require? There is a lot of low level required for fighters to protect themselves, but then for some operations you’ll want to run there is specialist training too. Which has priority?
HI: We are requesting two types of training. The first is anti-chemical training for the company, this needs to encompass everything: chemical protection; laboratory skills etc. We also need general information for all troops, so they can protect themselves in future if anything happens.
GW: You mentioned Mosul a number of times. Do you think this will see a change in Daesh’s chemical warfare tactics?
HI: My personal opinion is that there is a very big threat close to Mosul from a unit near Al Mishraq. Al Mishraq was a huge company where they had chlorine and other gases. In 2003 during Operation Freedom against Saddam, he blew up the Al Mishraq company (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/3955005.stm) and it affected the whole region. Civilians breathed it in, old men, old women, and there was a persistent plume over the area. I believe Daesh will use Al Mishraq to create a similar plume and attack the peshmerga and Iraqi security forces. I also believe they will use more chemical mortars and Katyusha against our security forces.
GW: Do you find that some commanders are more likely to use CW than others? Is there intelligence on the existence of a unified command that chooses when to fire them, or does it devolve to the individual commanders’ choice?
HI: Unfortunately we don’t have good information on this. We believe Daesh will use anything they can against peshmerga and Iraqi security forces. So it may be that they will keep their chemical capability until they can use it in the Mosul operation. Mosul has a big university and we believe it can draw on good experience from former Syrian and Iraqi armies as well as foreigners. Mosul university has increased its chemical capability, it could also have some chemical equipment from Syria and old stuff from Iraq.
GW: Once Mosul has fallen do you think that the chemical attacks will stop? How important do you think it is to use the university, that once it is denied to them they will have to stop? Or now that they have experimented and done testing and evaluation they will find another way to make them?
HI: My view is that they are preparing for our Mosul operation. We have intelligence that they are doing everything, making tunnels, defence lines, preparing to defend Mosul not just inside but outside too. I think that if we take Mosul they will try and hide some chemical gases in the country to the west of the city which is a large, open area, I believe they will hide stuff to use in the future after Mosul
GW: In terms of your CBRN defence capability you have mentioned that you need training, detection and PPE. Anything else? What would make the biggest difference?
HI: Peshmerga forces are part of the Iraqi defence system and we are protecting a huge area. Kurdistan has a population of 5.5 million, in addition we have received 1.8 million refugees. The Kurdistan region changed during Saddam, and now it is known as the disputed area and we are protecting this disputed area as well, like Sinjar and Tawuq. After the Iraqi army fell in 2014 we sent our forces to protect that area, so now we are protecting 10 million people, and we don’t have enough equipment. We should have received everything from the Iraqis, but they have given us neither the equipment, like tanks and armoured personnel carriers (APCs), nor the budget – we need everything. It is not just for two or three days, or even a few months, we have been fighting Daesh for three years. Fighting needs a lot of resources, water, ammunition, budget, so while we appreciate the coalition forces - they help us with air support, training and advice, weapons, ammunition, APCs etc - but what they have provided is not enough, we need more. Most of the peshmerga use civilian vehicles and they are an easy target for Daesh, and many are killed because of a lack of APCs.Daesh uses bombs, mines, IEDs, VBIEDs and chemicals. In the last few months there has not been an attack against peshmerga frontline, although there have been skirmishes, but we controlled the situation and defeated them. Their strategy now is to use VBIEDs, IEDs, mines, snipers and chemicals and we believe another change is that they are attacking cities or villages. We have 500 peshmerga injured by chemical gas, but they are not all severe injuries, although some are and need to be treated outside the country.