Iraqi town Taza 'hit in IS chemical attack' appeals for help

It is the smell that you notice first of all - a bitter mixture of egg and cucumber that hangs in the air, and burns your nose and throat. Local people say they have been washing down the streets and cleaning their houses constantly, but it will not go away. 

It has been like this in Taza since this small town, about 20km (12 miles) south of the city of Kirkuk, was the target of what Iraqi officials say was a chemical weapons attack on 8 March. A barrage of rockets was fired from the nearby village of Bashir, which is controlled by militants from the Sunni jihadist group, Islamic State (IS). Some were loaded with what has been identified locally as sulphur mustard, a blistering agent, and chlorine. 

"The rockets didn't explode, but when they landed a chemical agent seeped out," says Mojtaba Iri, a member of a local Shia Muslim defence unit. "Many people didn't know what the rockets were. They came to look and then realised there was a bad smell of gas." The late afternoon attack claimed the lives of three local children and injured some 600 people, 35 of them critically. 

Doctors in the local hospital say the symptoms that the victims exhibited after the attack, including burns and respiratory problems, were consistent with exposure to chemical agents. A newborn baby died immediately. Three-year old Fatima, who was playing right next to the spot where one of the rockets landed, died the following day of organ failure. 

Ten-year old Masumeh died 10 days later. Her funeral was being held as we arrived in the town; her small coffin was held aloft by a crowd of local men. Many carried placards showing Masumeh lying dead in a pink dress. The mourners were angry at what they said was a lack of support from the Iraqi army to help drive out the estimated 300 IS fighters now occupying Bashir. 

Taza has been under almost daily rocket fire from Bashir since the village was occupied by the militants nearly two years ago. For the militants Bashir is a useful staging point for reinforcements. Taza is full of pictures of "martyrs" - men from local Shia defence units who have been killed fighting IS in the past two years. "Why don't they [the Iraqi army] come and help our forces to retake Bashir? Why aren't their jets coming to bomb IS?" asks one man. 

"What have our children done to deserve this?" In the nearest city, Kirkuk, we find Zeyneb, mother of the second victim, three-year-old Fatima. Zeyneb was badly affected by the gas as she tried to drag her daughter to safety. She is now out of hospital but her face is black with chemical burns and she has blisters all over her lips and eyes. Zeyneb has no idea that Fatima is dead. 

Her husband, Samir, has told her the toddler has been taken to Turkey for emergency treatment. "I need to wait until [she] gets better and then I will find a way to tell her," Samir says. A thin man wearing the uniform of a Shia defence unit, Samir breaks down as he shows me a photograph of his daughter. 

Local doctors say there is nothing more they can do for his wife, so he is trying to find a way to get her to Turkey for specialist treatment. Zeyneb's family are Shia Turkmen and they are actually from Bashir - the village now occupied by IS. They had to flee for their lives when the militants stormed in. "Bad luck seems to be following us," Zeyneb says. 

Back in Taza, the local police take us out on patrol. We walk through deserted streets of one-storey houses - almost all damaged by rocket fire. The chemical smell is overwhelming. "You can't imagine what it was like right after the attack," says our police escort Vajdat. "It was impossible to stand out here." 

Although the use of chemical agents in the attack on Taza has yet to be confirmed by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the global watchdog has issued a statement expressing serious concern about the incident. The OPCW also said it had recently worked with the Iraqi government to confirm that sulphur mustard was use in attack by IS militants on Peshmerga forces in Iraqi Kurdistan in August 2015. 

In Taza, local MP Niyazi Mimaroglu is clearly frustrated at the lack of reaction by the Iraqi government and the international community to the attack. He points out that it comes just before the anniversary of Saddam Hussein's infamous poison gas attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988, which killed up to 5,000 people. "What's happened here is serious," he says. "It's the same as Halabja. It's the same gas, but now they're using it against the Turkmens." 

People in Taza have got used to coming under fire from IS, which considers Shia to be apostates subject to punishment by death. However, the use of chemical weapons has suddenly raised the threat level in this small town to a new and sinister level. A commander of the Shia defence force in the town, who asked us not to use his name, said tensions between the different forces fighting IS in the area were preventing a co-ordinated assault to drive the militants out. 

"There are some disagreements between the Iranian-backed Shia forces and the [Kurdish] Peshmerga over who should lead the operation," he said. "And [US-led] coalition forces are reluctant to provide any air support while the Shia forces are on the frontline." While the military squabble, the people of Taza continue their daily struggle to survive, but it is a struggle that has just got a lot more frightening. 

By Nafiseh Kohnavard
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