American soldiers may have been exposed to Iraqi chemical weapons, Pentagon says Report examines incident involving depot explosion in Gulf War aftermath

June 22, 1996|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon revealed for the first time yesterday that American soldiers may have been exposed to Iraqi chemical weapons during the weeks after the close of the gulf war.

Several hundred men from a North Carolina-based Army engineer battalion were in an area where a demolition team blew up a bunker that may have contained Iraqi rockets tipped with the nerve agent, sarin, and a mustard blistering agent.

Pentagon spokesmen said U.N. inspectors reported five years ago to the U.S. government that the area may have contained chemical weapons, but the report was not assessed and verified until last month.

Officials said they have begun trying to locate and interview those who served with the battalion -- the 37th Engineers -- in the war. They said they have contacted some but not all members. Those reached so far have not reported any ill effects, defense officials said.

Sarin, known to U.S. experts as nerve agent GB, is highly toxic in liquid form and in the vapor that can be created through detonation of a munition. It causes death through paralysis of the respiratory system.

It was sarin that was recently used by terrorists to poison commuters in a Japanese subway.

Thousands of GIs have come forward since the 1991 war complaining of a host of ailments that have come to be known collectively as gulf war syndrome.

Despite large government medical studies, investigative committees and examinations of tens of thousands of soldiers and their family members, no cause has been discovered.

Until yesterday, American officials maintained that there was no evidence that American troops were exposed to Iraq's chemical weapons.

The Pentagon's chief spokesman, Kenneth Bacon, explained in a hastily called and somewhat confused briefing late yesterday that the incident occurred in early March 1991.

Demolition and chemical weapons experts from the battalion, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., were in the process of destroying a large Iraqi ammunition depot at a place called Kamisiyah, northwest of Basra and about 200 miles southeast of Baghdad.

Bacon, standing before a circuit-board diagram of the depot, said there had been reports that chemical weapons had been stored in the area and the demolition experts approached the area in protective suits and armed with chemical sensors.

But the sensors detected no chemicals, the experts removed their protective gear and proceeded to blow up the bunkers. Troops from the unit were about three miles away when the bunkers exploded. Bacon said that during the demolition, sensors were also used and detected no chemical agents.

Stephen Joseph, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said there were no reports of illness at the time from the soldiers in the area.

In fall 1991, however, U.N. inspectors examined the site and found destroyed Iraqi rockets that contained the kind of lining often used in chemical weapons projectiles and traces of the agents, the officials said.

Bacon said the information was forwarded to the U.S. government. "We had a report to the government," he said. "But remember, we had -- we have a lot of papers about the gulf war, about Desert Storm."

Bacon said the report surfaced with a recent effort to probe all available evidence that bear on the gulf war syndrome. U.N. inspectors returned to the site and verified that there were traces of sarin and mustard in the shell linings.

Among other things the revelation raised questions about the accuracy of the American chemical weapons sensors.

"Our understanding of this episode is still partial," Bacon said.

Pub Date: 6/22/96

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