The US has confirmed the presence of traces of sulfur mustard, a chemical warfare agent, on fragments of ordnance recently used by the Islamic State in attacks in Syria and Iraq, according to two US officials familiar with the results of laboratory analysis of the samples.
The laboratory tests, which were also performed on scraps of clothing from victims, showed the presence of a partially degraded form of HD, also known as distilled sulfur mustard, an internationally banned substance that burns a victim’s skin, breathing passages and eyes.
Kurdish officials in northern Iraq and rebels in northern and eastern Syria have both cited multiple attacks this summer during which noxious chemicals were dispersed, including chlorine and another substance that caused burning and respiratory distress, and that they suspected of being mustard or another blister agent.
In some of the most recent episodes, villagers and activists in Marea, a rebel-controlled village north of Aleppo in Syria that has resisted the militants, reported multiple artillery attacks that left civilians with chemical burns.
The ordnance fragments and clothing samples, which had been flown secretly to the US, came from attacks that variously appeared to involve artillery shells, improvised rockets and mortar shells.
A senior US official in Washington on Friday said that testing had confirmed the presence of sulfur mustard in at least four such instances.
“There’s no doubt ISIS has used this,” the official said, using a common acronym for the Islamic State.
Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity, because they said the laboratory results were not approved for public release.
The attacks occurred in both Iraq and Syria, the officials said, although they did not say which of the suspected attacks had been confirmed as having involved sulfur mustard or whether the artillery attacks on Marea were among them.
Chemical warfare agents, broadly condemned and banned by most nations under international convention, are indiscriminate. They are also difficult to defend against without specialized equipment, which many of the Islamic State’s foes in Iraq and Syria lack, and they are worrisome as potential terrorist weapons, even though chlorine and blister agents are typically less lethal than bullets, shrapnel or explosives.
Chlorine is commercially available as an industrial chemical and has been used occasionally by bomb makers from Sunni militant groups in Iraq for about a decade. However, it is not known how the Islamic State would have obtained sulfur mustard, a banned substance with a narrow chemical warfare application, the officials said, and it remains part of a puzzle the US and other governments have not solved.
Both the former government in Iraq and the current government in Syria previously possessed chemical warfare programs.
Abandoned and aging chemical munitions produced by Iraq during its war against Iran in the 1980s were repeatedly used in roadside bombs against US forces during the occupation that followed the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.
However, one official said the types of ordnance linked to the Islamic State so far have not matched known chemical ordnance in the former Iraqi inventory.
The official said the attacks have been perplexing, as they have been geographically scattered and have varied in their delivery systems, suggesting that the Islamic State had access to, and was experimenting with, different types of rockets and shells configured to carry chemical warfare agents or toxic industrial chemicals.
One theory is that the militants were manufacturing a crude mustard agent themselves, both officials said. That would be a technically difficult task, one of them said, as would loading and sealing any agent in warheads or shells that could be fired safely and accurately.
Another theory was that the Islamic State acquired sulfur mustard from undeclared stocks in Syria, either through capture or by purchasing it from corrupt officials, although both US officials said that this theory was not at present widely held by US analysts.
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