Parts of 7 Army divisions exposed to nerve gas, CIA says Computer model shows plume of sarin drifting over gulf war troops

September 27, 1996|By NEWSDAY

WASHINGTON -- A preliminary CIA computer model shows a plume of sarin nerve gas drifted over elements of seven U.S. Army divisions after American engineers blew up Iraqi munitions containing 4.8 tons of poison at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, according to administration officials.

More than 130,000 troops were in these front-line units in southern Iraq and Kuwait that routed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's army from Kuwait during the weeklong ground war.

But U.S. officials say poor record-keeping by the Pentagon has prevented CIA analysts from making an accurate estimate of how many troops were exposed to the cloud of sarin that drifted more than 62 miles south from an Iraqi bunker complex called Khamisiyah.

"Their unit locater system is all screwed up," said one expert contributing to the CIA analysis. The Army divisions with the units involved are the 1st Mechanized Infantry, the 82nd Airborne, the 24th Mechanized Infantry, the 1st Cavalry, the 1st Armored, 2nd Armored and 3rd Armored.

Other support units made up of reserves and state national guards may also be affected, administration officials said.

Depending on the final computer analysis, the plume of sarin may have also passed over parts of the British 1st Infantry. According to one official, the cloud of sarin may have reached the Saudi Arabian border.

One senior Pentagon official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said a "very large" number of men and women were possibly exposed to low-levels of the nerve agent. The Pentagon is assembling a new task force to contact thousands of Desert Storm veterans about potential health problems.

Other defense officials expect the large number of troops possibly exposed to the March 10, 1991, plume of sarin will raise new questions about the possible link between the so-called gulf war syndrome and troop exposure to small amounts of chemical munitions. The Veterans Administration estimates more than 7,000 Desert Storm soldiers suffer from fatigue, sore joints, sleeplessness, stomach problems and rashes -- symptoms of the syndrome, which still has not been medically identified.

Just last week, Defense Secretary William J. Perry's aides estimated that only 5,000 U.S. soldiers were potentially exposed after Army engineers destroyed munitions containing sarin March 4 and March 10. But Kenneth Bacon, the Pentagon spokesman, warned reporters that the estimate was likely to grow.

Previously, CIA analysts showed a cloud of sarin 5 miles wide drifted about 15 miles northeast, over a swamp, after engineers destroyed 1,060 Kaytusha rockets containing sarin March 4. In addition, experts said between 4,000 and 5,000 soldiers were within a 15-mile circle of the demolition at Khamisiyah's bunker 73.

CIA officials told Congress on Tuesday that another 550 of the 122-mm rockets with sarin were destroyed by U.S. demolition teams March 10. Between 3,000 and 4,000 soldiers were within a 15-mile radius of the explosions. And because the rockets were in an earthen pit -- not concrete bunkers -- more of the sarin was hurled into the air.

"Modeling of weather conditions indicate the wind was almost due south," said the CIA's John McLaughlin. "We are now modeling the actual hazard areas."

In past CIA projections, troops within three miles of the March 4 blast risked acute poisoning with symptoms including a runny nose, labored breathing and blurred vision. But beyond that, only low-level exposure was likely, the CIA experts said.

Thursday, the Pentagon again insisted there was no evidence that troops suffered acute symptoms of sarin exposure on either March 4 or March 10. But the defense spokesman, Navy Capt. Mike Doubleday, told reporters the Pentagon investigation was continuing.

Pub Date: 9/27/96

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