WASHINGTON (Reuter) - Gulf War commander Norman Schwarzkopf says it was possible that allied carpet bombing exposed U.S. troops to Iraqi war gas, but said he got no report of any such exposure throughout the 1991 war.
When asked if allied carpet bombing could have unintentionally set off Iraqi chemical weapons near enough to reach U.S. troops, Schwarzkopf told senators "it's a possibility, but I -- yeah, it's a very real possibility."
But the retired general told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee that an Iraqi chemical attack was his greatest fear. U.S. experts looked for Iraqi chemical and biological weapons all through and after the war but found none.
So he said he was amazed when the Defense Department announced last summer that up to 20,000 U.S. troops might have been exposed to war gas when teams blew up the Iraqi Kamisiyah weapons dump in southern Iraq just after the war.
"Nobody was more surprised than I was because we literally, desperately were looking for evidence of Iraqi chemical activity," Schwarzkopf testified.
"I can't tell you what happened at Kamisiyah," he said.
The burly former commander said the carpet bombing that conceivably could have set off Iraqi chemical weapons was intended to wipe out Iraqi artillery near the Saudi Arabia border to clear the way for the allied ground invasion that won the war. He said Iraq used artillery to fire chemical weapons at Iran during the earlier Iran-Iraq war.
But Schwarzkopf said the only report he heard of a possible war gas release during the bombing proved false.
He said he received a report that a cloud was rolling toward the Saudi border that might contain chemical gas and said he was afraid war gas might panic some of the allied troops who were not well trained in how to deal with it.
He said he sent military experts with detectors to the scene and they found no chemical weapon gas in the cloud.
Schwarzkopf said he had no doubt that many U.S. troops returned from the Gulf War sick, speculating their ills might have been caused by a combination of chemicals and bugs present during the war, plus the stress of combat.
"Believe me, no one feels worse about it than I do and no one wants any worse to get an answer to it," he said.
After Schwarzkopf left, a Defense Department memorandum was introduced at the hearing that ordered all "bombshell" or otherwise embarassing reports on Gulf War illnesses to be withheld from public release until officials could review them and prepare responses.
Assistant Navy Secretary Bernard Rostker, the Pentagon official now in charge of Gulf War illness investigations, said the aide who wrote the memorandum had left the Pentagon and that the note was not Defense Department policy. "Frankly it's outrageous," he said."
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