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Were chemical weapons deployed in suburban Damascus a week ago, leading to the deaths of at least 355 civilians? And, if so, who used them, the regime of embattled leader Bashar al-Assad? Or one of the several rebel groups trying to topple him, perhaps to try to draw the West into the Syrian conflict?

The U.S. and most Western countries, notably Britain and France, are pointing the finger at Assad for the attack, while the Syrian government and its main international ally, Russia, blame the rebels.

At this point, except for those responsible, no one knows for sure who was behind the attack, or even what kind of chemicals might have been used.

UN weapons inspectors are now on the scene trying to determine whether chemical weapons were, indeed, used.

The international group Doctors without Borders, the source for the casualty figures, says, it "can neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack."

Its information comes from three hospitals in Damascus that "received approximately 3,600 patients displaying neurotoxic symptoms" on the morning of Aug. 21. MSF staff were not at the facilities themselves.

If that attack a week ago can be confirmed as a deliberate use of chemical weapons on civilians, it would go down in history as only the second such large-scale incident against civilians in modern times. (Though there have been allegations of at least five other uses of chemical weapons that have affected civilians in the two-year-old Syrian conflict, the first in March of this year.)

 

The first incident, a quarter century ago, is now nearly forgotten, but in both its similarities and its stark contrasts with the current situation, it helps with understanding the dilemma the world faces today.

The date was March 16, 1988, in a Kurdish town in Iraq, 14 kilometres from the border with Iran. The bloody Iran-Iraq war was in its eighth and final year.

One day earlier, the townspeople had liberated Halabja. Iraqi forces were abandoning the area and Iranian troops, guided by allied Kurdish guerillas, had briefly entered the town.

On March 16, according to eye-witness accounts and Iraqi pilots years later, poison gas was dropped from aircraft, killing several thousand civilians in the town, with the precise death toll unknown.

1988 poison gas attack killed thousands

Iran and Kurdish leaders, especially Jalal Talabani, now Iraq's president, alerted the outside world. Iran flew in journalists, whose images of streets littered with corpses were shown on newscasts. However, no independent investigators visited the area.

 

Claims by Iran and the Iraqi Kurds that Saddam Hussein's forces had carried out the gas attack were initially accepted. But on March 23, U.S. State Department spokesman Charles Redman said that "Iran may also have used chemical artillery shells in this fighting."

Other unnamed U.S. government officials, speaking to journalists off the record, also suggested that Iran, America's primary Middle East antagonist at the time, was responsible, at least in part.

 

The book is the definitive account of what happened, and Hiltermann concluded it was Iraq, and only Iraq, that used chemical weapons against the people of Halabja.

It would take two years for the dominant, U.S. government view to shift from publicly blaming Iran to blaming Iraq, and that was only after Saddam hinted at undertaking a chemical gas attack against Israel. His ill-conceived invasion of Kuwait a few months later sealed the deal.

U.S. blocks response to attack

In 1988, the U.S. was allied with Iraq, and was providing order of battle data about Iranian forces to the Iraqis, while turning a blind eye to what it knew were chemical attacks against Iranian troops, a serious and flagrant violation of international law.

"It was the only slightly better of two bad choices: stop helping the Iraqis and the Iranians would likely win the war, or continue to work with a country now using nerve agents on the battlefield," writes Rick Francona this week on his blog. Francona was U.S. military liaison officer to the Iraqi forces in 1988.

Francona claims that the U.S. didn't yet know that Saddam had ordered the chemical attack on Halabja, but he is now adamant that it was Iraq that perpetrated that atrocity.

 

However, there are still many people who believe the old U.S. argument, and the debate continues in some circles about what exactly killed, sickened and maimed the townspeople of Halabja.

Fast forward 25 years, and the conflicting accounts from the Russians, Americans, Europeans as well as the Assad regime and the rebels, not to mention the lack of evidence to date, suggests it may take time to find out what really happened in Syria.

Halabja 'similar' to attack in Damascus

Stephen Pelletiere was with the CIA until 1988, before going on to teach at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania, retiring in 2000 as a senior professor. He has written six books on Iraq and is working on another one about Halabja.

Pelletiere has been and continues to be one of the leading voices for the narrative that blames Iran for that chemical gas attack.

But he was also a high-level skeptic about the rationale for going to war with Iraq in 2003, and sees something similar taking place with regard to Syria today.

"If you look at the events surrounding not just Halabja but the whole fuss in the U.S. over going to war with Iraq [in 2003], and then you look at what's going on now in Syria, it follows an almost exact same pattern."

As he told CBC News, in 1988 there was every reason in the world why the Iraqi commander might have used gas but in the case of Syria, there's no reason at all."

For Pelletiere, it's illogical for Assad to resort to poison gas when UN inspectors had just arrived in Damascus and when his forces seemed to be gaining the upper hand in the war. "The logic is all on the side of a provocation," he argues.

Science needed

Of course, the rest of the world doesn't know what Assad's logic might be in a situation like this, with rebel forces almost literally on his Damascus doorstep. But there is the possibility, at least, that chemistry might help sort the situation out.

Mathew Meselson, who heads the Harvard University program on chemical and biological weapons, looks at the science of these situations and notes we haven't seen any yet in the case of Syria.

"It's essential that any head of state or government official who's making momentous decisions on the basis of chemical analysis must talk not just with other political figures or subordinates, but with individuals who are deeply knowledgeable about the science itself," he told Bloomberg News.

 

He cited the case of U.S. allegations against the former Soviet Union in 1981, that it had supplied chemical agents to communist forces in Vietnam and Laos that turned out to be honeybee droppings.

U. S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who seems convinced that chemical weapons were used last week, was blunt yesterday: "All peoples and all nations who believe in the cause of our common humanity must stand up to assure that there is accountability for the use of chemical weapons so that it never happens again."

It's a far cry from 1988 when people like Hiltermann were critical of the world for doing nothing about Halabja and of the UN for bowing to American pressure to not hold Iraq responsible for being the first country to use poison gas against civilians, despite the realized threat of proliferation.

JAPAN: Residents in a southern Japanese city were busy washing ash off the streets Monday after a nearby volcano spewed a record-high smoke plume into the sky.

Ash wafted as high as five kilometres above the Sakurajima volcano in the southern city of Kagoshima on Sunday afternoon, forming its highest plume since the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) started keeping records in 2006. Lava flowed about one kilometre from the fissure, and several huge volcanic rocks rolled down the mountainside.

Though the eruption was more massive than usual, residents of the city of about 600,000 are used to hearing from their 1,117-metre (3,664-foot) neighbour. Kagoshima officials said in a statement that this was Sakurajima's 500th eruption this year alone.

Residents wore masks and raincoats and used umbrellas to shield themselves from the falling ash. Drivers turned on their headlights in the dull evening gloom, and railway service in the city was halted temporarily so ash could be removed from the tracks.

Officials said no injuries or damage was reported from the volcano, which is about 10 kilometres east of the city.

By Monday morning, the air was clearer as masked residents sprinkled water and swept up the ash. The city was mobilizing garbage trucks and water sprinklers to clean up.

"The smoke was a bit dramatic, but we are kind of used to it," said a city official who requested anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to the media.

JMA says there are no signs of a larger eruption but similar activity may continue. It was maintaining an earlier warning that people not venture near the volcano itself.

Japan is on the "Ring of Fire," the seismic faults encircling the Pacific Ocean, and has frequent earthquakes and volcanic activity.

IRAQ: A wave of bomb attacks has hit Iraq as people celebrated the Eid al-Fitr festival marking the end of Ramadan, with more than 60 reported dead.

Eleven bombs targeted both Shia and Sunni areas of the capital, Baghdad, hitting cafes, markets and restaurants in at least nine different districts.

A bomb also killed at least 10 people in Tuz Khurmato, north of the capital.

This Ramadan in Iraq is thought to have been one of the deadliest in years, with more than 670 people killed.

Most of the violence in the past six months has involved Sunni Islamist militant groups targeting Shia Muslim districts.

More than 4,000 people have died in such attacks this year. A further 9,865 have been injured, with Baghdad province the worst hit.

Maliki vow

More than 170 people were reported injured in the latest wave of violence.

The capital's deadliest car bomb attack on Saturday struck in the evening near an outdoor market in the south-eastern suburb of Jisr Diyala, police said, killing seven people and injuring 20.

 

Correspondents say the areas struck in the capital were both Shia and Sunni districts.

Among the areas struck were Amil, Abu Dashir, Khazimiya, Baiyaa, Shaab, Husseiniya and Dora.

Saif Mousa, the owner of a shoe store in the mainly Shia New Baghdad, said he was sitting in his shop when he heard an explosion outside.

He told the Associated Press news agency: "My shop's windows were smashed and smoke filled the whole area. I went outside of the shop and I could hardly see because of the smoke. We had a terrible day that was supposed to be nice."

At least another 10 people were killed in a suicide car bomb attack in Tuz Khurmato, 170km (105 miles) north of Baghdad.

Other attacks were reported in the Shia holy city of Karbala, 80km (50 miles) south of Baghdad, and Nasiriya, 375km (230 miles) south of the capital.

Another went off near a Shia mosque in the northern city of Kirkuk.

Last week Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki vowed to continue operations against militants, saying: "We will not leave our children to these murderers and those standing behind them and supporting both inside and outside."

Many Sunnis accuse Mr Maliki's Shia-led government of marginalising them.

The tensions this year were fuelled in April when Iraqi security forces broke up an anti-government Sunni protest in the city of Hawija, killing and wounding dozens of protesters.

Then last month, hundreds of inmates escaped after gunmen stormed two jails near Baghdad - Abu Ghraib to the west of the capital and Taji to the north.

The spike in violence in Iraq has raised fears of a return to the levels of sectarian killing seen following the US invasion 10 years ago, and has led commentators to discuss once again the prospect of partition along community lines.

The Iraqi government has also faced widespread criticism over corruption and the provision of basic services.

The conflict in neighbouring Syria, itself increasingly taking the form of a Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict, is further straining community relations in Iraq.

EAST HAVEN: A small plane crashed into a residential neighborhood a few blocks from an airport while trying to land, setting fire to two houses and likely killing up to six people, authorities said. Just before noon Friday, the multi-engine, propeller-driven plane struck two small homes near Tweed New Haven Airport. The aircraft’s left wing lodged in one house and its right wing in the other.

Late Friday, officials from a number of agencies were still at the scene trying to determine how many people had been killed. Officials said the total was between four and six. The victims of the crash have not been identified. “We haven’t recovered anybody at this point, and we presume there is going to be a very bad outcome,” East Haven fire Chief Douglas Jackson said Friday. National Transportation Safety Board investigator Robert Gretz said at a news conference Friday night there were casualty reports of two or three people in the plane and two or three people in one of the homes.

He said the reports were unconfirmed and that local and state authorities were at the scene looking for victims. Shortly after the crash, officials had said at least three people were missing: the pilot and two children, ages 1 and 13, in one of the houses. Later, Gov Dannel P Malloy said the plane also may have been carrying two passengers. However, officials were still trying to verify whether that was true. Less than two hours later, Malloy said rescuers had spotted two bodies, including one of an adult, but hadn’t recovered them.

The plane’s fuselage had entered one of the houses, and the recovery effort was focusing on the home’s basement, he said. Mayor Joseph Maturo Jr said later that the houses were still unstable and crews had not completed a full search. The 10-seater plane, a Rockwell International Turbo Commander 690B, flew out of Teterboro Airport in New Jersey and crashed at 11:25 am, the Federal Aviation Administration said. Tweed’s airport manager, Lori Hoffman-Soares, said the pilot had been in communication with air traffic control and hadn’t issued any distress calls.

“All we know is that it missed the approach and continued on,” she said. A neighbor, David Esposito, said he heard a loud noise and then a thump: “No engine noise, nothing.” “A woman was screaming her kids were in there,” he said. Esposito, a retired teacher, said he ran into the upstairs of the house, where the woman believed her children were, but couldn’t find them after frantically searching a crib and closets. He returned downstairs to search some more, but he dragged the woman out when the flames became too strong. Wilson Idrovo said he was working on a house nearby when his son said: “Daddy, the airplane is falling down.”

Idrovo said he went into the house but couldn’t get into a room where the plane had crashed. Angela Wordie was on her deck taking in towels when she noticed a plane making a strange sound. “It kind of was gliding,” she said. “The next thing I know it hit the house.” Maturo, the mayor, said a priest was with the woman whose children were feared dead, and he offered sympathy to the family. “It’s total devastation in the back of the home,” he said. Neighbors said the woman moved into the neighborhood recently. A vigil is planned at Margaret Tucker Park. – AP

PARIS: Researchers yesterday pointed to the Arabian camel as a possible host of the deadly human MERS virus plaguing the Middle East. The exact origins of the virus is a riddle scientists have been working hard to solve in a bid to halt its spread, especially in the lead-up to the annual haj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia in October.

Now an international team says blood tests were positive for antibodies in camels from Oman, meaning they had at some point been infected with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV), or a closely-related virus. The findings suggest that Arabian or dromedary camels “may be one reservoir of the virus that is causing MERS in humans,” said a statement that accompanied the study published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal.

MERS has killed 46 of the 94 people confirmed infected since September last year, according to the World Health Organization. Concerns about the virus, for which there is no vaccine, have led Saudi Arabia to restrict visas for the 2013 hajj, which sees millions of Muslims flock to the holy sites of Mecca and Medina every year. Scientists had long suspected that like its cousin virus SARS, which killed hundreds of people in Asia 10 years ago, MERS may originate in bats.

It is unlikely, however, that these shy, nocturnal creatures are passing the virus on to humans, and the involvement of an intermediary “reservoir” animal is suspected-with anecdotal evidence of patients having been in contact with camels or goats. The virus is not very adept at jumping from person to person, though there have been isolated cases. For the study, the team took blood from 50 camels from across Oman and another 105 in the Canary Islands, as well as llamas, alpacas, Bactrian camels, cattle, goats and sheep from the Netherlands, Chile and Spain. They found MERS-like antibodies in all of the Omani camels and lower levels in 15 of those from the Canary Islands.

“What it means is that these camels some time ago have come across a virus that is very similar to MERS-CoV,” the paper’s senior author Marion Koopmans of the Netherlands’ National Institute of Public Health and the Environment, said. According to the study, the Oman samples came from various locations in the country, “suggesting that MERS-CoV, or a very similar virus, is circulating widely in dromedary camels in the region.” But the team could not say when the animals had been exposed, or whether it was the exact same virus.

“For that, studies are needed that collect the right samples from camels while they are infected,” said Koopmans. Other animals from the Middle East, like goats, must also be tested. Dromedary camels are popular animals in the Middle East and North Africa, used for transport, meat and milk, as well as racing. There are an estimated 13 million of them in the world today-all but a few domesticated. A respiratory virus that causes fever and pneumonia, MERS has claimed lives in Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, France, Germany, Italy, the UK and Tunisia.

All people who had fallen ill outside the Arabian peninsula had either visited one of the Middle Eastern countries or had been infected by a person thought to have come from there. “This looks like the big break that public health workers needed in the fight against the spread of MERS,” University of Reading microbiologist Benjamin Neuman said of the study. “This is the first hard evidence that camels may be the missing link in the chain of transmission.” The next step, he said, would be to look for the virus itself in camels and find out whether it is mutating in a way that makes it easier to infect humans.

Koopmans said the findings had by no means solved the puzzle, but was an important pointer for further research. “Camels indeed are very important for the region, an important source of food, transportation and fun (racing), and we should certainly not jump to conclusions,” she said. “We need to find the virus first, and we need to know in more detail how people get infected. Only when that is clear, it may be possible to draw up some specific control measures.” – AFP

WASHINGTON: Eighteen of the 19 US embassies and consulates that were closed in the Middle East and Africa because of a terrorist threat will reopen today, the State Department says. The US Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, will remain closed. The US Consulate in Lahore, Pakistan, which was closed Thursday because of what officials say was a separate credible threat, also was not scheduled to reopen.

In the statement Friday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki did not cite a reason for the decision to reopen the 18 missions. She cited “ongoing concerns about a threat stream indicating the potential for terrorist attacks emanating from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” or AQAP, for keeping the embassy in Sanaa closed.

“We will continue to evaluate the threats to Sanaa and Lahore and make subsequent decisions about the reopening of those facilities based on that information,” Psaki said. The 19 outposts were closed to the public beginning last Sunday. Most American employees at the US Embassy in Yemen were ordered to leave the country on Tuesday because of threat information.

An intercepted message between Al-Qaeda officials about plans for a major terror attack triggered the 19 closures. The State Department issued a travel warning Thursday night regarding Pakistan, saying the presence of several foreign and indigenous terrorist groups posed a potential danger to US citizens throughout the country. At the same time officials ordered nonessential government personnel to leave the US Consulate in Lahore.

In an appearance Tuesday on NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” Obama said the terror threat was “significant enough that we’re taking every precaution.” However, closing embassies and consulates called into question Obama’s assertion last spring that Al-Qaeda’s headquarters was “a shadow of its former self” and his administration’s characterization of the terror network’s leadership as “severely diminished” and “decimated.”

On Friday, the president noted that he was referring to “core Al-Qaeda” and that “what I also said was that Al-Qaeda and other extremists have metastasized into regional groups that can pose significant dangers.” “So it’s entirely consistent to say that this tightly organized and relatively centralized Al-Qaeda that attacked us on 9/11 has been broken apart and is very weak and does not have a lot of operational capacity, and to say we still have these regional organizations like AQAP that can pose a threat, that can drive potentially a truck bomb into an embassy wall and can kill some people,” he said.

Shutting down so many US missions also raised the thorny issue of security, a political problem for the administration since the deadly assault last September on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya. The deaths of the American ambassador to Libya and three other Americans brought criticism over the lack of security and whether the administration had been forthright about the perpetrators. The closings covered embassies and other posts stretching 4,800 miles from Tripoli, Libya, to Port Louis, Mauritius, and were not limited to Muslim or Muslim-majority nations. – AP

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