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Pentagon Reports 15,000 Troops Possibly Exposed to Iraqi Toxins

By Art Pine
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

The Pentagon warned Tuesday that the number of U.S. troops that may have been exposed to toxic agents at two Iraqi chemical weapons sites just after the 1991 Persian Gulf War could be at least three times as large as the 5,000 it has estimated so far.

The higher figure is expected to result from a revised estimate based on new calculations by the CIA - scheduled to come out later this month - on how far the chemical agents might have been carried by wind on the days that the weapons caches were blown up.

Defense Department spokesman Kenneth H. Bacon said that based on the amount of ammunition involved and on initial indications about wind patterns and the disposition of U.S. forces, "I think we have to think in terms of big numbers - bigger than 15,000, certainly."

The latest revelation, the third time in three months that the Pentagon has boosted its estimates of how many U.S. soldiers might have been exposed, was expected to add fuel to the debate about the department's investigation into the possibility of a "Gulf War illness."

Although veterans have been complaining for years about possible side effects ranging from joint aches to reproductive problems, the Pentagon has maintained for five years that it had been unable to find any evidence that U.S. troops had been exposed to chemical agents.

In June, the department announced that new evidence obtained by a special U.N. commission showed that an Iraqi ammunition bunker at Khamisiyah destroyed by troops from the Army's 37th Engineering Battalion contained shells with chemical warheads.

At that time, the Pentagon estimated that as many as 400 soldiers might have been exposed to toxic agents.

Last month, however, officials in Washington disclosed that additional U.S. demolition operations at an open ammunition pit located in Khamisiyah could boost the number of troops exposed to as many as 5,000. They warned then the figure could go still higher.

Those have forced the Pentagon to launch a major review of its handling of the investigation into a possible Gulf War illness. Earlier, authorities had cited the absence of any exposure by U.S. troops as a major roadblock to tracking down a cause.

Analysts said that if the totals turn out to be as high as some officials now expect, the veterans' complaints could become a major national issue, much as the fight over the effects of Agent Orange became in the years following the Vietnam War.

Deputy Defense Secretary John P. White said Tuesday that he had asked the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine to re-evaluate the department's overall approach to the Gulf War illness, both in investigating the issue and in treating veterans who are ill.

The CIA report expected to be released later this month is designed to provide the Pentagon with a computer model that it can use to estimate the extent to which any U.S. military units in the area might have been exposed to chemical agents released in the two Khamisiyah explosions.

The explosions took place on March 4 and March 10, 1991, in a section of southern Iraq about 15 miles southeast of the town of An Nasiriyah, which was a known chemical weapons depot. During the war, the allies did not know that Khamisiyah contained agents as well.

Although thousands of U.S. troops were in the Khamisiyah area - which covered about 25 square kilometers - not all of them necessarily were exposed to toxic fumes. Most of the ammunition did not contain chemical agents, and no deaths or serious illnesses were reported at the time.

But now, U.S. officials fear that thousands of soldiers may have been exposed at least to low-level doses at Khamisiyah, depending upon how big an explosion occurred at the bunker and accompanying pit area and whether the chemical vapors were carried to the troops.

U.N. reports, based on the Iraqis' own estimates, have suggested that there were as many as 2,160 artillery shells and rockets in the bunker and accompanying pit, about evenly split between the two sites. It is not known whether these estimates are reliable.

However, an earlier CIA study, dealing solely with the bunker at Khamisiyah, estimated that although the cloud in that explosion probably spread as far as 28 kilometers, only a small portion of it would have been lethal. Most of it would have produced minimal effects.

The Iraqi munitions were reported to contain sarin, a virulent nerve agent used in the Tokyo subway bombing in 1995.