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US forces at Iraq’s Qayyara West airfield near Mosul are wearing protective masks after winds brought fumes from a nearby burning sulphur plant set ablaze during fighting with Islamic State, US military officials said on Saturday. The Qayyara West airfield is the main US hub to support Iraqi-led operations to retake the city of Mosul from Islamic State. There are about 5,000 US troops in Iraq but the US military has not disclosed the number of personnel at the airfield.
“The winds have actually shifted south, so, as a precautionary measure, the troops at Qayyara West have donned their personal protective equipment – continuing their operations at this point in time,” an official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
It was not immediately clear if the troops had been ordered to wear the protective gear or if they had elected to, a second official said.
The main concern was avoiding potential respiratory ailments resulting from inhaling the fumes. Air samples from Qayyara West were sent to the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency for analysis as to “what, if any concerns, may result,” the second official said.
The officials said Islamic State set the sulfur plant ablaze two days ago during fighting around al-Mishraq, which is south of Mosul. Iraqi security forces estimate it will take 2-3 days to put out the blaze, the US official said.
A Reuters photographer on the southern front saw plumes of smoke rising on Friday from the sulfur factory, filling the air with toxic gasses.