Early testing shows signs of chemicals

Rumsfeld urges patience as false positives possible for gas and nerve agents

War In Iraq

April 08, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

V CORPS HEADQUARTERS, in northern Kuwait -- U.S. soldiers searching an empty military training camp in the Karbala area have found several drums that, according to preliminary tests, may contain deadly nerve agents and mustard gas.

Officials here promptly notified the Defense Department about the discovery, which was made Sunday. "We're treating it as real. We're reporting it as real," said Col. Tim Madere, the top chemical warfare officer in the V Corps of the Army.

But additional tests must be conducted before the possibility of a false reading can be excluded. Military officials say that many industrial chemicals can cause false alarms, and that they do not want to make public the charges unless they are irrefutable.

A team from the 75th Exploitation Task Force, a unit that tests suspected sites for weapons of mass destruction, is scheduled to visit the site today. The team, the premier military unit here looking for chemical and biological weapons, is expected to take samples from the drums and send them to laboratories in the United States and Britain.

The Army's V Corps also plans additional tests.

Asked about the discovery in Washington yesterday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld urged caution.

"We have to recognize that almost all first reports that we get turn out to be wrong," he said. "There tend to be changes in them. And as a result, we have to take our time and look at it."

Madere said soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division were sent Sunday to the north side of the town of Hindiya, east of Karbala, to search for an Iraqi weapons cache indicated on a captured map that showed various potential arms sites.

Madere said the soldiers came upon an empty training camp that the Army believed may have been a base for Iraqi paramilitaries or for Palestinians and other foreigners seeking to help defend Iraq.

The soldiers discovered an unusually large amount of chemical protection gear, and instead of weapons, they found several canisters. At that point, they called in their chemical unit.

What happened next is unclear, but several soldiers became ill and quickly put on chemical protection gear. On Sunday night, members of the chemical unit reported that they had identified the problem as CN, a riot control gas that causes vomiting and blisters. Madere said he did not believe the soldiers were seriously ill.

Madere said the chemical team stayed overnight to check several other large drums. Yesterday morning, the team tested a 20-gallon drum and received positive indications for sarin and tabun, two nerve agents.

Tests on a 55-gallon drum came up positive for mustard gas.

The team was then ordered to immediately take samples to a laboratory set up in Iraq to test for chemical weapons. Those results are expected today or tomorrow, though definitive results are expected to come from labs in the United States.

Brig. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley, deputy commander of the 101st Airborne, pointed out that the chemicals had not been packaged into warheads or artillery shells.

"These certainly were not weaponized," he said.

But U.S. officials said it was especially ominous that the chemicals were found in what might have been a training camp for non-Iraqis. Slogans on the walls that read "Palestine for Palestinians" and other evidence pointed to the possibility that the camp may have been a training base for foreigners, they said.

The Bush administration's main argument for going to war against Iraq was that Saddam Hussein's government had a cache of chemical and biological weapons, could share them with terrorist groups that might use them on the United States or other countries, and had managed to hide the weapons from United Nations inspectors.

U.S. forces in Iraq have made a high priority of the search for weapons of mass destruction. Military officials have said they believe Iraq was hiding the weapons near Baghdad. Advancing allied troops have tested several sites in Iraq for chemical or biological weapons since the start of the war 19 days ago, but all the results have been negative.

The Iraqi government has scoffed at accusations that it has nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.

Mustard gas burns or blisters exposed skin, eyes and lungs. It can remain a hazard for days, and can cause death if someone goes untreated.

Sarin and tabun are nerve agents that can act within seconds of absorption through the skin or inhalation. If not treated immediately, exposure can lead to convulsions, loss of consciousness and death.

During the 1980s, Iraq had substantial chemical warfare capabilities that were used in its war with Iran and against its Kurdish minority in the north.

An unclassified CIA report said Iraqi forces killed or injured more than 20,000 people in multiple attacks using mustard gas, sarin and tabun delivered in aerial bombs, rockets and artillery shells.

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