The United Nations announced Tuesday that clouds of chemical weapons may have been released from a second large Iraqi ammunition depot in the vicinity of U.S. troops during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, raising the possibility that the number of troops exposed to chemical weapons could be far larger than the Pentagon’s latest estimate of as many as 100,000.
U.N. weapons inspectors said that Iraq informed them only last year that hundreds of rockets filled with mustard gas and nerve gas had been stored during the war at the depot in Ukhaydir in southern Iraq, about 185 miles north of the Saudi city of Rafha, where thousands of U.S. troops were deployed.
The United States received this evidence earlier this year. Tuesday the Pentagon and the CIA confirmed that the Iraqi site had been bombed on Feb. 14, 1991, and that the United States now presumed that the bombing by the American-led military alliance had released a plume of chemical weapons.
They said that preliminary computer models suggested it was unlikely that the cloud had reached U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, although more modeling was needed before it could be ruled out.
“Obviously you don’t want to end up alarming people about a situation like this,” said Robert D. Walpole, who is overseeing the CIA investigation of chemical exposures during the Gulf War. He acknowledged that if all of the hundreds of rockets had been destroyed at the site, the plume of chemicals would have “come close” to U.S. troops.
This is the second time in two years that the U.N. weapons inspectors have provided the Pentagon with unwelcome news about the possible exposure of U.S.troops to chemical weapons.
For more than five years after the war, the Defense Department had insisted that it had no evidence to suggest that U.S. troops had been exposed to Iraqi chemical weapons - and no answers for the thousands of veterans who had complained of mysterious health problems.
Last year, however, the Pentagon reversed itself and announced that it had received evidence from the United Nations suggesting that U.s. troops had been exposed to a cloud of the nerve gas sarin when they blew up a sprawling Iraqi depot in the southern Iraqi village of Kamisiyah, in March 1991, shortly after the war.