U.S. troops in Iraq uncovered a “car bomb factory” near Fallouja this week that contained multiple canisters of chlorine, a potentially lethal gas that has been used in three insurgent attacks over the last month, a top U.S. official in Baghdad told reporters Thursday.
Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the Army commander responsible for day-to-day military operations in Iraq, said the Tuesday night raid outside the city west of Baghdad netted a wide array of munitions and three vehicles that were apparently being readied as car bombs at the compound, in addition to the chlorine cylinders.
The discovery of yet more chlorine after bombings Tuesday and Wednesday in which the chemical was used seemed to indicate a stepped-up effort by insurgents to use such choking agents to cause even more deaths and spread fear among Iraqi civilians.
At least 21 Iraqis and a U.S. soldier were killed or found dead around the country Thursday amid an aggressive security crackdown in the capital and rainy weather hampering travel across the region.
Odierno noted that insurgents had for several months been trying to use various other chemicals to make car bombs more deadly, and characterized the use of chlorine as part of these efforts.
Such bombs can spread fear, but Odierno noted that deaths caused by the chemical have been limited. The most recent attack, on Wednesday, killed two people and sickened 25.
“Over the last year or so ... we have found attempts of them to try to use all different types of chemical mixtures in order to try to make [car bombs] more lethal, and this is just another way to do it,” Odierno said in a briefing from Baghdad for reporters at the Pentagon.
Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said in an interview on CNN that the cache of weapons found Tuesday night near the town of Karma, northeast of Fallouja, included “all kinds of ordinary chemicals” besides chlorine, a possible indication that insurgents have stepped up their efforts to use toxic substances in their attacks.
Although Odierno would not say who the U.S. believed was behind the chlorine bombs, Karma is in Sunni Arab-dominated Al Anbar province, a stronghold of homegrown Sunni insurgents and foreign fighters linked to the group Al Qaeda in Iraq.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the use of chlorine appeared to be part of an effort by insurgents to pull off “spectacular events” that would kill civilians, and she called employment of the gas “disturbing and concerning.”
Chlorine has been considered for use as a chemical weapon as far back as the U.S. Civil War. According to the 2003 book “A War of Nerves,” proposals were made to President Lincoln’s secretary of War to use chlorine against Confederate forces in 1862, but the suggestions were never acted upon.
The first documented use of the gas in warfare was during World War I: In April 1915, German troops unleashed the yellowish-green gas on French and Algerian troops defending the town of Ypres in Belgium.
Although Germany again employed chlorine during World War II, the chemical has not been widely used in warfare since then. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services lists chlorine as a “choking agent” that could be used as a weapon by terrorists.
On Thursday, a roadside bomb was blamed for the death of the U.S. soldier near the southern city of Diwaniya. Three other soldiers wounded in the blast were taken to Baghdad for treatment, the U.S. military said.
In Baghdad, the bodies of at least 14 men were discovered. Mortar rounds struck a western neighborhood, killing one civilian and injuring three others. Elsewhere in Iraq, three bodies were found in Kirkuk, two in Mosul and one in Hillah.
U.S. and Iraqi forces northeast of Baghdad detained a police official on suspicion of operating death squads.
Brig. Gen. Qassem Khazaal, head of Diyala province’s criminal intelligence division, and six others under his command were arrested on charges of kidnapping and murder.
Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Baghdad and special correspondents in Baghdad, Baqubah, Hillah and Kirkuk contributed to this report.