The CIA is trying to determine whether U.S. troops were exposed to low levels of mustard gas that may have been released into the air after allied warplanes bombed a depot containing poison-filled rockets in southern Iraq in 1991.
United Nations inspectors in charge of monitoring Iraq's chemical weapons announced at a meeting in Buffalo, N.Y., this week that Iraqi officials told them in mid-1996 that Iraq had stored hundreds of rockets filled with mustard gas at a depot in Ukhaydir, about 185 miles north of the Saudi city of Rafha. Thousands of U.S. troops were deployed to Rafha before the Gulf War.
The site, known to U.S. troops as Karbala, was bombed by allied warplanes on Feb. 14, 1991, before beginning of the ground war as part of a larger bombing campaign to destabilize Iraq and to destroy its communications centers and weapons storage sites.
The CIA estimates that at least 104 rounds containing mustard gas were in a stack of rockets sitting by the side of a road at Ukhaydir when it was bombed. It is unclear whether mustard gas was released from all of them. U.N. inspectors visited the site in April and identified only three 155mm rounds that contained mustard gas.
From a preliminary computer model of the incident, "It appears that the plume will probably fall short of the closest troops," Robert D. Walpole, who heads the CIA's investigation into Gulf War illness, told the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, which met in Buffalo this week.
The Ukhaydir site represents the first incident in which officials acknowledged that chemical weapons released as a result of allied aerial bombing may have contaminated troops. The CIA has said the fallout from bombings of Al Muthanna and Muhammadiyat in central Iraq, both known chemical storage sites, did not reach allied troops.
The only other known incident in which U.S. troops were possibly exposed to chemical weapons occurred at Khamisiyah, an ammunition depot also in southern Iraq that U.S. ground troops destroyed in March 1991 after the war, as they were leaving the country.
The Pentagon announced last week that a long-awaited computer model of Khamisiyah estimates that nearly 100,000 U.S. soldiers could have been exposed to trace amounts of sarin gas. The number is five times greater than the Pentagon originally estimated.
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