New Estimate on Troops' Gas Exposure

July 25, 1997 New York Newsday


Washington - The Clinton administration yesterday estimated 98,910 American troops were exposed to low levels of nerve gas during the Persian Gulf war and revealed for the first time that U.S. demolitions created a toxic cloud that drifted over thousands of allied troops as well as Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian civilians.

Officials of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments presented new evidence at a joint Pentagon news conference on three days of fallout from the destruction of an Iraqi army ammunition-storage site by U.S. Army engineers on March 10, 1991.

The analysis was based on five separate models measuring the chemicals, the weather and wind direction. The Pentagon plans to use this same analysis to re-evaluate fallout from Iraqi chemical-weapons plants bombed in the opening days of the war as well as the March 4 destruction of weapons at a bunker.

Originally, 13 months ago, the Pentagon said only 400 U.S. soldiers were potentially exposed.

Defense officials sought to minimize the impact on the health of troops from the poisonous plume but disclosed for the first time that 26 American soldiers reported symptoms associated with nerve-gas exposure during that period. Bernard Rostker, the chief Pentagon investigator, refused to name the soldiers, their units or location at the time they suffered the symptoms.

More than 90,000 Gulf-war veterans have registered with the government, and military officials are still uncertain how many have illnesses related to medical injections and battlefield exposures to disease or the residue from chemical weapons. Chemical exposure normally causes symptoms within hours of exposure and does not suddenly surface years later, but the Pentagon and Veterans Department are financing $30 million in research into health effects of low-level chemical exposure.

Maps were made public showing that the toxic plume traveled more than 300 miles from the southern Iraq site of Khamisiyah to reach the western outskirts of Kuwait. It then penetrated more than 150 miles into northern Saudi Arabia, enveloping the heavily-populated Saudi staging areas of King Khalid Military City and Hafir-al-Batin.

There was no exact count of allied troops and civilians beneath the cloud, but one defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity, "many thousands" were exposed.

Rostker, an assistant Defense secretary, said possible exposure involved Syrian and Egyptian soldiers and, to a lesser degree, British and French troops.

Senior Pentagon officials denied for four years that there were any chemical weapons on the Gulf-war battlefield. Last year, the Pentagon admitted U.S. troops destroyed 14 tons of nerve gas at Khamisiyah contained in 122-mm. rocket warheads. An estimated 9.2 tons was destroyed inside bunkers on March 4, 1991, creating a poison cloud that drifted away from U.S. troops.

Yesterday's report focused on the destruction of 4.8 tons in an open pit near the 15-acre ammo dump. The analysis of the plume from the demolitions has been delayed by bureaucratic bickering.

Robert Walpole of the CIA diclosed there was fallout on three days from the pit area - March 10-12 - with the largest plume coming the second day. Sarin nerve gas evaporated and was carried toward Kuwait as well as deep into northern Saudi Arabia.


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