ISIS lacks deadly chemical munitions in Iraq, Syria, Pentagon claims
Islamic State terrorists do not appear to have seized any chemical weapons as they have rolled across Iraq and Syria, the Pentagon said Wednesday, as reports of U.S. troops' exposure to similar weapons during Washington's last conflict in Iraq raised questions about the extremist group's access to similar deadly agents.
“We have no indications right now that they have possession of those kinds of munitions,” said Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman.
The United States destroyed 4,530 chemical munitions during its 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was motivated in part by the Bush administration's belief that then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein harbored a large-scale, secret weapons program. The chemical munitions that U.S. troops later found, however, were mostly decaying remnants of a much earlier weapon program.
While American troops may have destroyed most of those weapons, U.S. officials acknowledge that at least some chemical materials may remain in Iraq, including at a Hussein-era chemical weapon site that extremists seized in June.
The New York Times on Wednesday reported that at least 17 U.S. service members had been exposed to chemical weapons in Iraq during the invasion. In some cases, The Times said, military physicians failed to provide proper care to the troops, some of whom have reported lasting health problems.
Although military officials do not have a tally for all of the service members exposed to those weapons from 2003 to 2011, when President Obama withdrew forces from Iraq, a Department of Defense official said about 20 had been exposed to chemicals from 2006 to 2008. Two troops were exposed to a nerve agent in 2004, the official said.
The renewed reports about Iraq's lingering chemical stockpile may intensify anxiety in Congress about Obama's Islamic State strategy, which now is centered upon airstrikes on militant positions in Iraq and parts of Syria. Some lawmakers are pushing for more direct military involvement in the fight against the group, which has beheaded hostages — including Westerners — and threatened to initiate further attacks against the West.
“There are caches of this stuff clearly out there — it would be folly just to assume there aren't,” an aide to the House Armed Services Committee said, referring to the possibility of the Islamic State seizing chemical materials in Iraq or Syria. “It's a contingency you have to be prepared for.” The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
Senior U.S. officials show few signs that they support sending troops into ground combat in what has become a messy, multisided war.
Speaking Wednesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ruled out a new ground war in Iraq.
“Our strategy in Iraq and Syria does require forces on the ground, but they must be local forces,” Hagel said during an address at an Army conference.