Jun 11, 2004
by James Meikle
The Guardian - UK
All 50,000 troops who served in the first Gulf war might have been exposed to low levels of chemical warfare agents during the fighting and its aftermath, a US investigation has suggested.
The implication of a Congressional report that large numbers of civilians and troops in Iraq and neighbouring countries could have been exposed will galvanise the controversy over illnesses suffered by more than 5,000 British veterans since 1991 that have been linked to their service in the Gulf.
The report indicates that possible chemical contamination of troops could have been much more widespread than suggested by previous official government estimates, based on US research for the Pentagon and CIA.
Lord Morris, the Labour peer who has led the campaign on Gulf war illnesses, yesterday demanded answers from the government, saying it appeared the entire British deployment of more than 50,000 troops could have been at risk.
The MoD used the US defence department models to estimate that 9,000 British troops were within the chemical plume that might have been released from the destruction of chemical agents at Khamisaya, in southern Iraq, in March 1991. This figure was revealed in 1999. Previously, the government said no British units would have been affected, although one Briton might have been under a plume.
More than 5,000 British veterans have reported illnesses they believe related to the Gulf war or the inoculations they received before deployment and more than 600 have died. The government has refused to accept any suggestion that there is a "syndrome" but points to its £8.5m research programme to prove its commitment to finding answers.
The government's current position is that the possible level of nerve agent exposure from Khamisaya would have had "no detectable effect" on human health, and the Pentagon still insists the information was the best available and any researcher would know limitations of the data. The CIA also agreed with the report.
But the general accounting office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, last week said the assumptions used by the Pentagon were based on incomplete and uncertain data and that postwar testing to replicate the size of the plume "did not realistically simulate the actual conditions of bombings or demolitions".
The Pentagon, including the bombing of other sites in Iraq, estimated that nearly 102,000 US troops were potentially exposed. But the GAO concluded that, given the significant methodological flaws, neither the Pentagon nor the MoD could know which troops were and which troops were not exposed.
Lord Morris, an honorary member of a US congressional sub-committee investigating undiagnosed illnesses, said: "This is a profoundly significant report not only for US veterans but for ours as well."
He has tabled a parliamentary question to ministers on the issue.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004 http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,2763,1236426,00.html