WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon has acknowledged in a new report that chemical weapons were detected as many as seven times in the first week of the 1991 Persian Gulf war near staging areas in northern Saudi Arabia, where tens of thousands of U.S. troops were housed.
While insisting that it had no conclusive evidence that U.S. soldiers were ever exposed to Iraqi chemical weapons, the Defense Department said in the report that it was "further exploring the plausibility" that small amounts of chemical agents passed over troops after U.S. bombers destroyed Iraqi arms depots and factories north of staging areas near the Saudi city of Hafr al-Batin.
In the past, the Pentagon had said it knew of only two "credible" detections of chemical weapons in the gulf war, both made with Czech military equipment. The new report, which was dated Aug. 5, recounted those two detections and said five others reported in the first week of the war "cannot be discounted."
The report -- which pulls together information from intelligence reports and other government studies, some of them made public earlier by the Defense Department -- will doubtless be seen by ailing veterans of the gulf war as additional evidence that they were made ill by chemical agents released in the war.
And the report is also likely to draw new attacks on the credibility of the Pentagon, which until recently had insisted that it had no evidence that U.S. troops were exposed to chemical weapons. It was not clear why Defense Department officials had not compiled the information before in a public report, given the intense interest of thousands of sickly gulf war veterans and the fact that the information has existed in Pentagon records for years.
Scientists and health officials in the Defense Department acknowledge that little is known about the long-term health effects of exposure to trace amounts of chemical weapons, like those that were detected. More than 60,000 gulf war veterans have asked for special government health screenings to determine if they suffer from ailments related to the war.
In June, the Defense Department acknowledged for the first time that there was evidence that a significant number of U.S. soldiers may have been exposed to chemical weapons, and that the exposure may have been the result of an error by American military commanders.
In the incident disclosed in June, about 150 American combat engineers blew up an Iraqi arsenal in a bunker near the southern Iraqi village of Kamisiyah. The bunker was later determined to have contained chemical weapons, including mustard gas and the nerve gas sarin.
Many of the soldiers who participated in the mission on March 4, 1991, a few days after the end of the war, have reported in recent interviews that they have chronic gastrointestinal ailments and mysterious rashes.
Those soldiers have contradicted several elements in even the new Pentagon account. They maintain that the bunker had not been searched for chemicals before it was demolished and that sensitive chemical detection equipment the battalion carried registered the presence of toxins after the blast.
The Kamisiyah incident was not referred to in the new report, which focused instead on chemical detections in the first week of the gulf war. The new report, prepared by the Pentagon's Persian Gulf Veterans' Illness Investigation Team, was posted this month on a Defense Department site on the Internet for gulf war veterans.