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Symptoms ranging from fatigue and weight loss to respiratory difficulties are being reported by individuals who claim exposure to toxic smoke or other hazards during Persian Gulf War duty.

Both Defense and Veterans Affairs department officials told Congress Wednesday they endorse establishment of a registry to track any possible health connections to the conflict.Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi said his department lacks lacks "scientific evidence that the health problems experienced by Persian Gulf theater veterans are related to their exposure to environmental or chemical contaminants.

"We believe the prudent and appropriate course of action is to move forward with the registry and to provide treatment to veterans whose symptoms may have resulted from exposure," Principi said.

Defense Department officials said they have found evidence of few gulf war-related illnesses, but some soldiers had problems with unknown causes.

"The military's position always has been and continues to be that we don't know," said Brig. Gen. Ronald Blanck, chief of medical corps affairs for the Army. "I'm perfectly happy to say there may be a connection. I've found disease in these folks.

"So far we have been unable to conclusively link it to environmental exposure."

Some representatives were critical of the Defense Department's cautious statements about the gulf war's health impact, urging quick action to track people who served in the gulf so they can be helped if problems occur later.

Rep. Joseph Kennedy, D-Mass., said the official position was "right out of Dr. Strangelove. It verges on a cover-up. Why is the presumption that the onus of proof is on the veteran?

"It is put on us to prove in some unquestionable manner, otherwise (the military) doesn't want to deal with it," Kennedy said.