Lacking Clues to Nerve Gas

March 4, 1997 New York Newsday


Washington - Crammed in wooden crates stacked floor to ceiling in Bunker 73 were hundreds - perhaps 1,100 - Katyusha rockets.

Members of the U.S. Army's 37th Engineer Battalion who inspected the bunker in southern Iraq at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf war saw no yellow bands, skull and crossbones or other signs that the 122mm. rockets contained poison gas.

"If you know what to look for, they are easy to spot," said Patrick Harper of Ronkonkoma, a veteran who helped destroy Bunker 73, igniting the only known release of nerve gas during the war. Some of the estimated 78,000 ailing gulf war vets suspect chemical munitions contributed to their illnesses.

But Harper and the others didn't realize they were about to explode munitions containing 9 tons of liquid nerve gas. Neither Harper, his buddies, their superiors nor Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the Desert Storm commander, knew how to spot Saddam Hussein's dreaded chemical weapons.

Instead of yellow stripes, stenciled symbols or printed warnings the soldiers had been led to expect, Iraq's rockets were unmarked. That crucial gap in preparing Army demolition experts appears to be one more failure of U.S. intelligence in the war.

"Nobody knew what they were looking for," said Bernard Rostker, an assistant defense secretary who heads the Pentagon investigation of the poison-gas releases from the bunker at Khamisiyah. Last week Rostker released yet another report that raised more questions - and suspicions - than it dealt with.

U.S. intelligence now says Iraq's unmarked chemical munitions may be the result of its 1980-88 war with neighboring Iran. Iraqi President Hussein repeatedly used chemical weapons on Iran's soldiers.

Iraq routinely denied using chemical weapons, which violated Geneva agreements on land warfare. But the occasional Iraqi dud gave Tehran evidence of Iraq's chemical weapons, complete with yellow bands, skull and crossbones and other warnings. Iran displayed the Iraqi munitions, usually 155-mm. howitzer rounds containing mustard gas, for western television.

Rostker's aides said intelligence experts speculated that the bad press experience resulted in Iraq removing the telltale markings from the Katyusha rockets deployed in the gulf war. Some 155mm. artillery rounds filled with mustard gas were found near Khamisiyah and destroyed by UN inspectors after the war. According to Pentagon officials, the word "GAZ" was printed on boxes containing the shells, but there was nothing on the shell casings.

It was unclear when the Central Intelligence Agency and its Pentagon counterpart, the Defense Intelligence Agency, learned of the change, but the troops under Schwarzkopf's command did not know about it.

"I never heard about that," retired Army Lt. Col. Ken Silvernail said in an interview. When the war started, Silvernail was Schwarzkopf's chief of chemical branch at U.S. Central Command. Silvernail's view was echoed by other Army experts, including the men who destroyed Bunker 73 at Khamisiyah.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, Schwarzkopf indicated that the lack of information made little difference. The Desert Storm commander argued that all bunkers were treated as if they contained chemical munitions. His view was supported by retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, whose 24th Mechanized Infantry Division destroyed more than 1,000 bunkers during the war.

Both men portrayed bunker operations being conducted skillfully with chemical alarms deployed and troops garbed in protective clothing.

Even so, Harper of the 37th Engineers said he was stunned when the chemical alarms went off at Khamisiyah. Some soldiers put on masks and protective clothing. Others did not. Most ducked for cover from falling munitions thrown into the air by the demolitions.

"It was wild," Harper said.

The CIA estimates a total of 14 tons of nerve gas at Khamisiyah was destroyed by the U.S. engineers between March 4 and 10. No one was acutely affected by fumes from the explosions. But between 20,800 and 50,000 troops - the Pentagon is still uncertain - may have been exposed to low levels of sarin agent.

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