WASHINGTON -- In the latest revelations about chemical weapons that may now be under the control of Islamic State militants, The New York Times reported Thursday that hundreds of U.S. service members were exposed to chemical weapons materials in Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003. The Pentagon did little to help the affected service members, Defense Department officials confirmed to the Times.
The news adds to a litany of dire tales about the fate of Iraq's chemical weapons.
The U.S. military's admission that it mishandled chemical exposures comes less than a month after a major New York Times investigation into how often such weapons were found in Iraq during the U.S. occupation. The Times reported in October that the military had suppressed information about the discoveries and the harm they caused to U.S. troops.
Earlier that week, the Interdisciplinary Center in Israel released its own investigation, details of which were shared with The Huffington Post, indicating that the Islamic State may have used those Iraqi chemical weapons. The U.S. State Department said at the time that it was aware of and seeking more information about the allegations.
The now-degraded chemical weapons -- which may contain sarin or sulfur mustard -- are not the material the Bush administration said it went into Iraq to find in 2003. President George W. Bush suggested back then that Iraq had an active chemical weapons production program that demanded immediate U.S. attention. Instead, the weapons that U.S. soldiers were exposed to, and that the Islamic State may now be able to use, date from the 1980s when Iraq produced and used chemical weapons without significant U.S. pushback.
Islamic State fighters captured the former Iraqi chemical weapons production facility at Muthanna -- and the yet-to-be-dismantled weapons within -- over the summer. Syrian Kurdish sources told Jonathan Spyer of the Interdisciplinary Center that they believed the extremist group had used captured chemical agents in a village near Kobani, Syria, in July -- and they provided photographic evidence.
Spyer told The Huffington Post last month that he had faith in the photos because he had shown them to Israeli chemical weapons experts, who suggested they showed victims of sulfur mustard. He also noted that the photos were sent to him to spark an international investigation, long before Syrian Kurds began to clamor for international armed intervention against the Islamic State around Kobani.
The initial New York Times investigation added credence to Spyer's report by confirming that the U.S. government had been aware of the presence of chemical weapons at Muthanna since at least 2008. Three of its journalists saw bunkers containing old chemical stocks at the facility in 2013, the Times reported.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently ordered a review of Pentagon records about service members' exposure to Iraqi chemical agents, defense officials told the Times. Data from that review pushes up the number of U.S. troops confirmed to have been affected by the abandoned chemical weapons from the initial 17 who spoke with the Times to more than 600.
The military will now begin expanded outreach to veterans who may have suffered after coming into contact with these chemical weapons, the Times reported.
More information about whether the Islamic State has used the weapons is harder to obtain. The group controls the territory where the weapons were allegedly used on Syrian Kurds. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has become increasingly cautious about its operations in Syria following an attempted attack on a team of its investigators earlier this year.
Supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has himself been accused of using chemical agents against civilians multiple times and is now dismantling his chemical weapons production facilities, have used the new claims against the Islamic State to bolster their argument that the international community should work with the Syrian regime against the militants. The U.S. has repeatedly identified Assad as the cause of the instability in Syria that allowed the rebels to thrive and stated that it would not work alongside him in its current campaign against the Islamic State.