WASHINGTON (AP) - Retired Gen. Colin Powell told lawmakers today that he and his military colleagues were fully prepared for the possible use of chemical weapons by Iraq during the Persian Gulf War. ``I reject any suggestion that somehow we were indifferent to our troops,'' Powell said.
Testifying before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Powell defended his actions, which included approving the rush into use of a chemical weapons vaccine, ordering the air strikes against possible chemical storage facilities and ensuring that the troops had full protective gear.
The testimony focused on concerns among Gulf War veterans that the Iraqi use of chemical weapons, or the accidental release of chemical weapons, may have caused chronic illness among thousands who served in the Gulf.
``I am as distressed - more distressed - than any member of this committee could ever be that there are veterans who are suffering illnesses that may have been a result of their service in the Gulf,'' Powell said.
``No item received more attention or was of greater concern to us than the possibility that the Iraqi army would use unconventional (chemical) weapons,'' Powell said.
``It was a matter of intense concern, intense worry,'' he said.
Powell said he saw no evidence during the war and has seen none since indicating that Iraq unleashed chemical weapons on U.S. troops. But Powell said it was possible that a weapons storage site in southern Iraq that was blown up by U.S. troops after the war may have contained chemical weapons.
Though the Pentagon is not certain, top officials say evidence points to the likelihood that the Iraqi shells blown up in March 1991, just after the Gulf War, contained deadly sarin nerve gas.
Army Col. Robert Flowers, testified before the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Wednesday that he witnessed the destruction of the Iraqi depot.
Flowers, now a major general who suffers from a sleeping disorder, had no idea that the routine ammunition demolition operation he was watching would become a central event in the search for the cause of ailments like his that are suffered by Gulf War veterans.
Though the Pentagon is not certain, top officials say evidence points to the likelihood that the Iraqi shells blown up in March 1991, just after the Gulf War, contained deadly sarin nerve gas. Flowers and his fellow soldiers didn't know that at the time, even though the CIA had passed warnings to Army higher-ups.
``I'm disappointed,'' Flowers told members of Wednesday when asked about the apparent lapse that kept soldiers in the dark about the nature of the shells stored at the Kamisiyah weapons dump. Had the troops been properly warned, he said, ``we would have tried to do a little more research on the type of weapons and how to properly dispose of them.''
Flowers endorsed the current Pentagon position: that no chemical weapons detection alarms were activated during or after the explosions.
Other Gulf War veterans, however, point to Kamisiyah as one possible source for the mystery illnesses such as sleeplessness, body aches and stomach ailments lumped under the title Gulf War illness.
Sarin nerve gas is highly lethal. Microscopic amounts can kill a human in minutes. This fact has baffled Pentagon investigators who wonder how such a large-scale, open-air destruction of sarin rocket shells could have resulted in no deaths or injuries.