WASHINGTON -- Evidence is mounting that Iraq attacked U.S. forces with chemical weapons during the Persian Gulf war, causing at least 185 U.S. troops to later fall ill with an array of disabling symptoms, according to a congressional report to be released today.
Thousands of other veterans became ill after toxic vapors were released during allied bombing of Iraqi chemical weapons factories, the investigation found.
The Defense Department has maintained that the Iraqis did not use chemical weapons during the 1991 hostilities.
However, the doctor leading the department's investigation of "gulf war syndrome" is "not ruling out" the possibility that as many as 4,000 U.S. soldiers are suffering the aftereffects of low-level exposure to chemical weapons, one of his aides said.
Maj. Gen. Ronald Blanck, commander of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, told congressional investigators Tuesday that low-level exposure to chemical agents may be responsible for the syndrome, symptoms of which include memory loss, aching muscles and joints, intestinal and heart disorders, fatigue and psychiatric problems.
It was first thought that the syndrome was caused by U.S. armor-piercing tank shells, made of super-hard depleted uranium, but the military has ruled that out. Studies continue into whether fumes from widespread oil fires may have triggered the illnesses. Some defense experts think a combination of factors might be to blame.
U.S. troops were outfitted with gas masks and protective gear because Iraq threatened to unleash "an unusual force" that "will astonish our enemies." In the late 1980s, Iraq bombed Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq with mustard gas, killing more than 4,000.
Shortly after the threat was issued, an Iraqi Frog missile, capable of carrying warheads containing more than one kind of poison, landed near an ammunition-supply unit close to the Saudi-Kuwaiti border.
The congressional investigation, led by Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr., D-Mich., found that 85 of the unit's 110 members have symptoms associated with gulf war syndrome.
Since a Frog missile landed near a Navy construction unit, 100 of its 725 members have become sick, the investigators reported.
People in both units were ordered not to talk about the attacks.
"There is a large body of evidence linking gulf war syndrome symptoms to the exposure of gulf war participants to chemical warfare agents and possibly to biological toxins," according to the report, written by Mr. Riegle's staff with help from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
"No other explanation proves as compelling," it says.
British soldiers have also begun complaining of an illness similar to that suffered by the Americans.
In July, the Czech government acknowledged that some of its gulf war troops detected airborne traces of mustard gas and the deadly chemical agent Sarin after allied air strikes against Iraqi arsenals.
Several gulf war veterans said U.S. chemical warfare alarms regularly sounded near units that were not under direct attack. The alarms evidently were triggered by poisonous agents spewed into the air by allied attacks on Iraqi weapons sites.
Wind blew the mists southward over U.S. troops, the report found.
Something in the air "burned your eyes . . . and stung your skin bad," said U.S. servicemen quoted in the congressional study.
Mr. Riegle said yesterday that he believes there is a "significant possibility" that chemical weapons are to blame for the syndrome and wants that possibility fully explored.
"The Defense Department, rather than digging into it and getting to the bottom of it, may be doing what I've seen it do other times -- basically go to the classical denial sort of response," he said. "The public and certainly these veterans have a right to the facts."
Mr. Riegle said he will ask for $4 million for a study on the potential link when the Senate debates the 1994 defense bill later this week.