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U.S. KNEW OF NERVE-GAS EXPOSURE

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A long-classified intelligence report shows that the Pentagon, the White House, the CIA and the State Department were alerted in November 1991 that chemical weapons had been stored in an Iraqi ammunition depot that was blown up earlier that year by a group of U.S. troops.

The report was relayed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to U.S. military commanders around the world and then remained hidden in files at the Pentagon and other government agencies even as the Defense Department issued statement after statement suggesting that it had no evidence that large numbers of U.S. troops might have been exposed to chemical weapons.The November 1991 report, which was marked "priority," was never shared with the troops themselves. The estimated 150 American soldiers who participated in the demolition mission in March 1991 in the southern Iraqi desert were informed only this spring that they may have been exposed to a cloud of mustard gas and sarin, a nerve agent.

Many of the soldiers who destroyed the arms depot have since developed debilitating medical problems that they say may be linked to their exposure to chemical weapons.

Pentagon officials said much of the material in the 1991 report had been obtained from U.N. arms inspectors who traveled to Iraq after the war ended on Feb. 27, 1991, and who had found evidence of chemical weapons at the massive arms depot at Kamisiyah when it was destroyed.

While the author's identity and other information was deleted from a declassified version of the report on national security grounds, the headline of the document includes the words "Kamisiyah Ammunition Storage Facility" and refers to the "chemical munitions" stored there.

It noted that a "leaking shell" had been found, but that "other than the leaking shell, all the shells appeared to be in good condition." Because of deletions from the report, it was not clear what had been reported leaking from the shell.

Most of the depot was destroyed on March 4, 1991 - eight months before the intelligence report was prepared - by soldiers serving in the Army's 37th Engineer Battalion. In recent interviews with 37 former members of the battalion, 27 reported that they were seriously ill, many with mysterious infections and gastrointestinal ailments.

The undeleted portions of the report make no mention of U.S. troops nor of the destruction of the depot, which would leave open the possibility that government analysts did not understand the significance of the document when they first read it.

But the fact that the Joint Chiefs obtained an intelligence report on Kamisiyah in late 1991 would suggest that someone in the government should have recognized years ago that U.S. troops may have been exposed to chemical weapons when the depot was destroyed.