MOSUL, Iraq – A mortar believed to be fired by ISIS landed near a Rudaw team embedded with Iraqi forces in Mosul, causing severe respiratory problems among the advancing Iraqi soldiers and media.
The incident happened as Iraqi forces were battling the militant group near Ashur hotel in the center of Mosul, facing ISIS mortar and sniper fire.
Rudaw’s camera captured the moment blue-tinged smoke made its way towards a school building where Iraqi forces and Rudaw’s team were stationed.
As a thick plume of smoke reaches the Iraqi forces, they start panic and flee the school.
“My eyes have gone blind,” Rudaw’s cameraman Sirwan Jalal cries out to reporter Nabard Hussein, both of whom run with the Iraqi forces out of the area.
“I am suffocating,” Jalal tells Hussein, asking him not leave him behind. People can be heard coughing and retching.
Hussein tells Jalal to hurry up, but Jalal continues to say, “My eyes cannot see.” He asks for water while making their way out.
Hussein, who has been covering the war against ISIS for almost three years, said that this mortar attack was different.
“There were many instances that mortar and car bombs exploded near us. But this one was so different,” Hussein told Rudaw TV in Erbil after he received treatment at a military hospital in Mosul and then at the Rozhawa hospital in Erbil.
“A smoke, which we first thought was a normal fire, after 10 seconds we felt suffocation and tears came out from our eyes and from our nose. Our eyesight went dark. In 10 seconds, I, the force that was there, and my cameraman, as it is seen, all of us pulled back. Some lost consciousness and many experienced vomiting. Our skin was itching. A lot of water came out of our eyes and nose, and our skins felt like burning... you feel your throat is blocked.”
“It smelled like hot pepper or onion. A very bad and suffocating smell,” Hussein added.
Hussein said that doctors could not immediately confirm what the substance was, but said that he has to go back to the doctor after 24 hours for further medical inspections.
He said that Rudaw’s driver, who was at the time about 400 meters away from the incident, also experienced some of these symptoms.
Iraq has “no evidence” that ISIS had used chemical weapons in Mosul, the country’s ambassador to the United Nations Mohamed Ali Alhakim told reporters on Friday.
Alhakim made the remarks as the UN Security Council was briefed on the situation of Mosul behind the closed doors. He said that he talked to Iraqi officials from Baghdad on Friday midday, and "there was really no evidence that Daesh has used this chemical weapon,” he said using an Arabic name for ISIS.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on March 5 that at least 15 people had been admitted to Rozhawa hospital since March 1 with symptoms indicating they were exposed to toxins from a blistering chemical agent.
Blister agents, or vesicants, are one of the most common chemical weapon agents, according to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
“These oily substances act via inhalation and contact with skin,” the OPCW writes on its website. “They affect the eyes, respiratory tract, and skin, first as an irritant and then as a cell poison. As the name suggests, blister agents cause large and often life-threatening skin blisters which resemble severe burns.”
The president of the UN Security Council, currently held by Britain, Ambassador Matthew Rycroft told reporters Friday that Iraq’s investigation into the use of the chemical weapon in Mosul was “ongoing.”
"We expressed concern over reports of possible use of chemical weapons by Daesh and we look forward to the results of Iraq's investigation into those allegations," Rycroft told reporters after the closed door meeting of the Security Council.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi also denied reports of ISIS using chemical weapons in Mosul. He called the reports “wrong.”
“According to our information and our follow up, if ISIS were capable of using chemical weapons, they would have used it,” Abadi said on Wednesday in Sulaimani. “But according to our information, they do not have that capability to use it. And what happened actually is a mixture of smoke and gas, and not a chemical weapon. It has a very limited impact.”
ISIS has used chemical weapons on several occasions in the last two years, including against Peshmerga forces, wounding at least 200 Kurdish fighters. The group was developing the weapons in the chemistry labs of Mosul University, Iraq special forces discovered when they retook the campus in eastern Mosul earlier this year.