ARLINGTON, Va. — Recent insurgent attacks in Iraq using chlorine are the first poison gas attacks in the country since Saddam Hussein was in power, Maj. Gen. Michael Barbero told reporters Friday.

Since Jan. 28, insurgents have launched eight chlorine attacks in Iraq. Most recently, two truck bombs carrying chlorine exploded on March 28 outside the Fallujah government center injuring 17 U.S. troops and 57 Iraqis, officials said.

A military spokesman with Multi-National Forces – West said Friday that 14 if the troops had returned to duty. Three others were hospitalized, but are stable and expected to return to duty soon.

Chlorine is widely used in both water and sewage treatment in Iraq.

“I strongly believe this use of chlorine should not be dismissed merely as a new tactic or an emerging trend,” Barbero said Thursday. “Chlorine is a poison gas. It is a poison gas being used on the Iraqi people.”

Barbero blamed the chlorine attacks on Al-Qaida in Iraq and other Sunni extremists.

He said the attacks come as retaliation against fellow Sunnis in Anbar province to the growing backlash against al-Qaida in Iraq.

“The use of poison gas on innocent Iraqi civilians discredits all of the Sunni extremist propaganda of being, ‘an honorable resistance,’ focused on ‘driving out the infidels,’” he said.

Speaking to reporters earlier Friday, Marine Maj. Gen. Walter Gaskin downplayed the physical damage that the chemical bombs have produced so far.

The chlorine attacks in Anbar “have been mainly aimed at the IP,” or Iraqi police, rather than coalition forces, said Gaskin, commander of the II Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward).

“What you have to understand is that the chlorine bombs have more of a psychological effect than they do a killing effect,” Gaskin said.

Asked about Gaskin’s comments, Barbero said: “He’s talking about the effects. I’m talking about this as a weapon.”

Friday’s news conference came one day after Brig. Gen. Michael Walsh, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers, Gulf Region Division, said he knew of no additional steps being taken to secure chlorine supplies.

“I didn’t hear what he said, and I’m not sure that is his responsibility, to secure that. That would be the responsibility of the tactical commanders,” Barbero said when asked about Walsh’s comments.

Barbero said he had no specific information on actions being taken to keep chlorine supplies out of insurgents’ hands.

Stars and Stripes reporter Lisa Burgess contributed to this report.

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