White House investigators have obtained new evidence that U.S. air attacks on Iraqi chemical weapon plants during the 1991 Persian Gulf War sent clouds of a low-level nerve agent blowing toward allied positions in Saudi Arabia.
The CIA now says Desert Storm air attacks on Muhammadiyat west of Baghdad blew up an estimated 2.9 metric tons of the nerve gas sarin that had been pumped into aerial bombs for the Iraqi air force.
Until now, the CIA projections showed lethal clouds of chemical agents blowing north - away from allied troops - and falling to the ground in remote areas of Iraq after traveling less than 40 miles.
But a new computer model shows the 3-mile-wide poison cloud from the Iraqi weapons plant at Muhammadiyat spread about 185 miles south after the January 1991 attack. The closest U.S. troops were about 255 miles south of the plant, according to the CIA.
The CIA briefed the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veteran Illnesses July 9 on the findings. The panel has been pursuing the source of sarin detected near allied troops during the early part of the air war to liberate Kuwait from Iraq.
While there were a number of false alarms detecting chemical weapons during the gulf war, the Pentagon now terms as “valid” detections of sarin by Czechoslovakian soldiers made Jan. 19-23, 1991, in northern Saudi Arabia, the same period as the attack on Muhammadiyat.
The latest disclosure follows a Newsday report in June that brought into question the Pentagon’s version of the postwar destruction of Iraqi chemical weapon storage sites. The Pentagon had said that the site near al Nasiryah, northwest of Basra, was destroyed in April 1991 by Army engineers wearing masks and protective rubber suits. No trace of the poisons was detected after the site was incinerated with explosives, the Pentagon said.
That version has been challenged by an eyewitness who told Newsday the soldiers wore no protective gear and that detection equipment was packed away.
The Pentagon now admits that some members of the unit “may” have been exposed to sarin during the operation.
Sarin is most deadly within a mile, where it can cause death by suffocation, as it did in the deadly Tokyo subway attacks. But there is a debate among experts over low-level effects as sarin disperses and weakens.
“Neither the first effects nor the (lower) limit levels reached U.S. troops that were stationed in Saudi Arabia,” the CIA told the White House panel, referring to troops south of Muhammadiyat.
However, the agency seemed less certain in the next sentence of its report: “When predicting very low concentration levels far downrange of the sources, large dispersions are created that are difficult to model.”
Some veterans groups argue that low-level exposures to nerve agents may have contributed to the mystery illness that has left thousands of gulf veterans with multiple symptoms that have been dubbed the Persian Gulf syndrome.
The CIA’s revised estimates followed an independent presentation to the White House panel. Based on satellite photography of the battlefield and other recorded weather data, the study by James Tuite tracked plumes from Iraqi chemical weapon plants attacked during the first week of the air war.
Tuite said warplanes struck six Iraqi production and storage facilities targeted for chemical weapons. The airstrikes on Jan. 17-18 were followed by 14 detections of nerve agents between Jan. 17 and 22, including seven by the Czechs.
According to Tuite, a stalled high-pressure front kept low-level sarin vapors in the air over the Saudi staging area of Hafir al Batin, where it then fell to the ground.
But the CIA’s revised presentation undercuts Tuite’s contention that large amounts of sarin came from several plants. Now, according to the CIA, the best evidence is that despite hundreds of air sorties targeting suspected chemical plants, only two plants had chemical munitions that were destroyed - Muhammadiyat and one even farther from allied forces, al Muthanna.
At al Muthanna, the CIA said, 16.8 metric tons of sarin were destroyed by allied air attacks Feb. 8. The plant is north of Baghdad and about 290 miles from the Saudi border.
It too sent sarin into the atmosphere, but it fell short of allied forces.