Recent months have witnessed the advent of a new tactic implemented by insurgents in Iraq: the use of chemical suicide bombs. With a greater spectrum of effects, both physical and psychological, chemical weapons have raised fears not only in Iraq but in the West as well. Within this trend, chlorine has grown in popularity since it was developed as a weapon in theatre this past winter. Initial intelligence attributes this new method of terror to al-Qaeda in Iraq, an organization that has notoriously targeted Sunni civilians. Currently, there are no reports of attacks directed specifically against coalition forces.
Since January 2007, six attacks using chlorine gas have been successfully carried out. US, Iraqi and coalition forces have captured equipment and raided production facilities in an effort to stymie more widespread usage. Results of the attacks, while not catastrophic, have proven effective for the insurgents. To date 32 people have been killed (the majority by actual blasts) and approximately 320 additional persons sickened from exposure to chlorine toxins. Because of this initial success and the growing concern regarding refinement of the tactic, it is anticipated that the use of chlorine in chemical attacks will continue in the near term.
Results of Exposure
Results of exposure to chlorine vary based on proximity and the amount of gas used. Initial studies show that lethal exposure occurs very near the effective blast radius of bombs used to transport the agent thus far, i.e. there is not a real opportunity for survival at these distances due to the dispersal of the actual bomb. Vomiting, fluid in the lungs, eye irritation, throat irritation, and tooth decay are among the most common short-term effects of chlorine gas exposure, fluctuating in intensity relative to the proximity of the initial blast. Lung disease is the only known long-term effect of high exposure to chlorine gas, usually occurring more frequently among smokers.
The Muslim Response
Response among Islamic-based organizations has been both positive and negative regarding this new tactic. The indiscriminate nature of the attacks has angered nationalists while radicals tend to offer support, claiming innocent deaths are a necessary means to an end. The Islamic State of Iraq has publicly denied involvement in chemical warfare and has condemned accusations to the contrary. Some al-Qaeda members, on the other hand, have previously advocated the use of biological and chemical weapons as part of their strategy, encouraging members to expel foreigners by any means necessary.
We expect chemical attacks to persist throughout the near term in Iraq. Chlorine will continue to be a popular agent since it is both readily accessible and effective. Additionally, Iraqi insurgents have proven to be both resourceful and adaptive, and will likely evolve as countermeasures are employed. Fear also continues to pose a significant concern: clouds, gas and explosions will continue to frighten civilians with greater effect than the immediate terror generated by ordinary bombs. The result may encourage the use of this tactic as the insurgents refine this new method of initiating terror. However, religious leadership, negative media propaganda, and faction authorities decrying the use of chemical weaponry may curtail the extent of its use. The ongoing US-lead security operations on production facilities as well as equipment and weapons seizures indicates that commanders on the ground recognize the threat and are taking successful action against further proliferation.