Nerve-Gas Mystery Lingers / Pentagon promises some answers soon

June 30, 1997 New York Newsday


Washington - One year after belatedly admitting that U.S. Army troops exploded 14 tons of sarin nerve gas during the Persian Gulf war, the Clinton administration still doesn't know if 20,000 or 200,000 troops were exposed to a toxic cloud that wafted over the Iraqi battlefield.

Senior Pentagon officials, however, hope to have some answers next month that may give a new perspective to an array of illnesses affecting more than 100,000 men and women who served in the 1991 conflict. Even low-level exposure to nerve gas may have contributed to the illnesses that began to show up almost two years after the war, according to Pentagon researchers.

"We're going to deliver as promised on July 21," said Bernard Rostker, an assistant Navy secretary who is the Defense Department's point man on an issue that has badly tarnished Pentagon credibility.

Rostker has been accused of obstructing the investigation of the nerve gas exposures by the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses. In Congress there have been bipartisan allegations of a Pentagon coverup.

In July Rostker is to make public a long-delayed computer analysis of a poison cloud created by an explosion set off by U.S. Army engineers near the sprawling ammunition complex at Khamisiyah in southern Iraq. There were two distinct demolition operations:

- On March 4, a week after the ground war ended, 9.2 tons of liquid nerve gas contained in 1,060 warheads of 122mm rockets went up.

According to the Central Intelligence Agency, the plume from that blast drifted northeast, away from 1,100 soldiers involved in the destruction. Most of the liquid chemical was contained inside concrete bunkers that were collapsed by the explosion, the CIA reported. On that day, U.S. soldiers destroyed 33 other bunkers filled with Iraqi explosives.

- On March 10, 4.8 tons of sarin was destroyed outside the Khamisiyah bunker complex known as "the pit." About 550 rockets inside wooden crates stacked in the open were exploded, sending the nerve gas into the atmosphere.

Most of the controversy centers on the March 10 event, the distance the plume traveled and the amount of sarin carried aloft and eventually deposited on persons on the ground.

According to the CIA and the Institute for Defense Analysis, that plume drifted 165 miles due south, where more than 200,000 American soldiers were deployed as well as British and Arab forces. Their analysis was presented to the White House panel on March 18 in hearings in Salt Lake City without reference to the deployment of 325,000 allied ground troops on the southern Iraq battlefield.

The official Army history of the conflict shows only imprecise locations of larger units beneath the track of the CIA plume, such as the 1st Armored, the 3rd Armored, parts of the 1st Mechanized Infantry and the 1st Cavalry Divisions. Also in the area was the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment.

Just east of the CIA plume are the 2nd U.S. Marine and the British 1st Armored Divisions. Uncharted, however, are thousands of soldiers in VII and XVIII Corps support units that were also on the battlefield.

"We still don't know exactly where all the troops were on March 10," said retired Army Lt. Gen. Dale Vesser, one of Rostker's investigators. In an interim report June 26, the Pentagon for the first time pinpointed the locations of 13,000 troops from the 82nd Airborne and 24th Mechanized Infantry Divisions, two units in XVIII Corps.

Last year the Pentagon estimated at least 20,800 from those units were within 32 miles of Khamisiyah on March 10. But Vesser said in a recent interview that he still needs to account for 50,000 support troops who were also near the pit explosion.

Far more than 200,000 may have been exposed to the cloud, which would have reached Saudi Arabia and the major allied staging area of Hafir al Batin, according to the CIA model.

The reach of the poison plume is based on weather prevailing at different altitudes and the amount of sarin released into the atmosphere. The CIA model is based on the destruction of 550 rockets, of which only 260 were actually blown to smithereens. Those 260 rockets contained 4,420 pounds of sarin.

Once it is vaporized by an explosion, the poison gas can remain airborne for 72 hours, dropping on persons below when there are changes in sunlight and temperatures.

But the computer model developed by the CIA and refined by the IDA has been rejected by the Pentagon because of uncertainties over the amount of nerve gas released March 10.

"There's too much uncertainty to go around scaring people," Rostker said in March during a combative session with his critics on the White House panel.

In an interview, Rostker offered details of an elaborate effort to get a more accurate account of the March 10 plume. From the Army Rostker obtained demolition experts who participated in the Khamisiyah operations. Soil samples were taken at Khamisiyah, and identical sand and dirt were imported from the Gulf desert to Utah.

At the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, the Army rigged the 122mm rockets with plastic explosives just as U.S. engineers did at the pit, said Army Col. Larry Cereghino. A pound and a quarter of C-4 explosive was tied with an explosive cord to wooden crates holding the rockets.

While many of the rocket warheads - tubes made from plastic - were broken open by the explosion, only about 50 of the rockets were actually vaporized by the Dugway experiments, Rostker said. And much of the liquid used to simulate nerve gas at the test site was contained by the wooden crates.

As a result, Rostker's conclusions could involve far less nerve gas in the atmosphere that earlier CIA models. He is still uncertain how far the plume traveled and how many troops may have been exposed.

"That will be up to the CIA analysts to decide," said Rostker, who will be turning over his research to the spy agency.


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