Hundreds of Iraqi policemen fell sick from poisoning last night at their base in the southern part of the country after the evening meal breaking their daily Ramadan fast, raising fears of a new type of terrorist attack – perhaps even involving chemical, biological or nerve agents.
Some of the policemen reportedly began bleeding from the ears and nose immediately after the meal, said Jassim al-Atwan, an inspector for the Environment Ministry, who was serving as a liaison in the investigation between the Health Ministry and the base, located in the town of Numaniyah.
“Hundreds of soldiers were poisoned after taking food and water in the iftar,” Wasit Gov. Hamad al-Latif told AP, referring to the meal that breaks the sunrise-to-sunset fast during the Islamic holy month. “Investigations are under way to determine the cause.”
Authorities have arrested the head of the mess hall, and a military spokesman said today it was likely the poisoning was intentional, according to the AP.
Last night, al-Atwan said 11 policemen had died, but Brig. Qassim al-Moussawi, a senior spokesman for the Iraqi military, denied the report, saying only four victims were hospitalized.
Samples of the food and water were being tested “to determine the substance in them” and will be sent to Baghdad for further tests, al-Latif said.
The suddenness and severity of the mass poisoning immediately raised fears of a new kind of terrorist attack for the nation of Iraq where weapons of mass destruction have not been used since Saddam Hussein was in power.
Iraqi forces under Saddam Hussein had an extremely potent mustard gas called “khardal” in Arabic. It was originally manufactured in Russia. Symptoms include bleeding from the eyes, ears and nose two minutes after exposure.
The policemen stricken were mostly Shiite officers. In the past, Sunni terrorists have targeted police and military forces with bombings and shootings.
Al-Atwan told AP those who ate the most died.
Some of the soldiers collapsed as soon as they stood up from the meal, others fell “one after the other” as they headed out to the yard in the base to line up in formation, al-Atwan said.
Iraqi police officers are on the front line of the bloody conflict tearing the country apart. About 4,000 Iraqi police have been killed and more than 8,000 wounded in the past two years, the U.S. commander in charge of police training said Friday.
Officials in Numaniyah, about 75 miles southeast of Baghdad, described disorder on the military base there as angry recruits stoned the car of their commander who had publicly reproached them for their religious observances.
According to the Los Angeles Times, several members of the Wasit provincial council and the mayor of Numaniyah, who all asked not to be named out of fear for their safety, said they had received complaints from soldiers about abuse by Col. Amer Flaih Hasoon Dulaimi, commander of the 1,800-member National Police brigade.
After the colonel public being publicly reproached for celebrating the birth of an imam, the recruits staged a protest at the base entrance, and threw stones at Dulaimi’s car as it passed, the security official said.
However, the official said he thought the soldiers were poisoned by meat served after its expiration date.