Twelve people from the embattled city of Mosul, including a 2-month-old baby, have been treated for suspected exposure to a blistering chemical agent, medics said Saturday, as Islamic State militants strike back at government-held neighborhoods while trying to hold off advancing government forces.
The patients, who were being treated in a hospital in the northern Kurdish city of Irbil, displayed symptoms of a chemical attack, including blisters, burns, respiratory problems, irritation to the eyes and vomiting. They described three separate attacks with rockets carrying gas over the past week on neighborhoods in eastern Mosul recaptured by government forces.
"There was a hiss of gas, and then we were suffocating," said Zeina Fawzi, who was sitting in the kitchen with her husband when a rocket exploded outside the door. She and her husband said it dispersed black oily droplets through the air, covering the kitchen walls. She pulled down her dress to reveal a blister on her shoulder.
The militants, who still control much of the western side of the city, have regularly bombarded the eastern side with mortars and rockets, causing misery for civilians living there. More than 1 million civilians were still in the city when the offensive to retake it began nearly five months ago.
Iraqi security forces have attempted to keep people in their homes, but the number of those fleeing has escalated in recent days as those forces make inroads into the packed western neighborhoods.
About 10,000 people are fleeing each day, according to Jassim Mohammed al-Jaff, Iraq's minister for migration and displacement. A total of 43,806 people have fled western Mosul since Feb. 25, including 15,400 people in the past two days, the United Nations said. More than 200,000 people have been forced from their homes since the operation began.
The use of a "blistering chemical agent" in a densely populated city is "completely unacceptable" and constitutes a war crime, said Lise Grande, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Iraq. She said tests are being conducted to determine the nature of the agent.
Some of the victims were told that it was probably mustard gas, which was used on the battlefield for the first time during World War I.
Among the most severely injured were a mother and her five children in an attack Thursday on Mosul's northeastern Giraj al-Shimal district. The children were between 2 months and 11 years old, said John Schad, a doctor with the International Committee of the Red Cross. In the room behind him, one of the young boys lay in his hospital bed with relatives at his side, his face severely swollen and bandages around his head. A 3-year-old girl is in critical condition, Schad said, adding that they would all "most probably" recover.
Yahya Qassim said he was about 100 yards from his home in the Mishraq neighborhood when a missile landed in his water tank around 5 p.m. Monday and let out a greenish gas with a foul odor.
His family of 13 had been in the garden when the rocket hit, but they rushed inside. They covered their faces with wet cloths before fleeing their home. Qassim, who was exposed for longer and went back to clean the house along with his 26-year-old son, suffered from eye irritation and a burn on his nose. The other family members were unharmed.
Fawzi's husband, Wissam Rashid, 46, was being treated in the same room for mild symptoms and had a burn mark on his head after a rocket attack Sunday in Mosul's Zuhoor neighborhood. The rocket was about 5 feet long, he said.
"I changed my clothes and had a shower, but it was still burning my skin," he said.
Iraqi authorities, unlikely to want to create mass panic in the city, have denied that suspected chemical attacks have taken place.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has previously confirmed mustard gas was used in an attack by the Islamic State on Kurdish peshmerga forces in 2015, but this is the first time a blistering agent is suspected to have been used in Mosul. Previously during the offensive, civilians and soldiers have been treated for breathing difficulties consistent with chlorine gas use.
It is not known how the militants obtained mustard gas, but it could have been seized from Syrian government stockpiles. Former CIA director John Brennan, who stepped down in January, said in an interview last year with CBS's "60 Minutes" that the Islamic State was thought to have "the ability to manufacture small quantities of chlorine and mustard gas."
Still, it is conventional weapons that are causing by far the most casualties in Mosul. In the room next to several of those with suspected chemical-attack symptoms were two men injured in an airstrike.
Islamic State militants had come to their home in Mosul's Mamoun neighborhood to use their roof as a sniper point, said their cousin Thaer Ahmed, 27. The militants told the extended family of 20 people to gather in rooms downstairs, but an airstrike hit the house.
"We rushed to get them out, but they were all under the rubble," said Ahmed, who lived opposite them. He said he was not sure whether it was an Iraqi air force strike or one by the U.S.-led coalition.
The two brothers and three sisters survived. They lost their mother, father, two brothers, two sisters-in-law, four sisters, four nephews and their grandmother.