Secret papers say poisons caused Gulf syndrome

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BRITISH AND US defence officials knew that victims of Gulf war syndrome were exposed to chemical weapons agents, according to previously unpublished military documents.

Restricted British and US military papers, obtained by James Tuite, a former US secret service agent, contradict government claims that chemical weapons were not deployed by Iraq during the Gulf war. The reports say allied soldiers were exposed to mustard agent and sarin, the nerve gas which killed 10 people in Tokyo last week.

Mr Tuite, an international security consultant and adviser to the US Congressional inquiry into Gulf war syndrome, wrote in a report on his investigations: "There is plentiful and significant causal and medical evidence to support the claim that [Gulf veterans'] illnesses are the result of either the immediate or delayed toxic effects of exposure to chemical and possibly biological warfare agents."

At least 500 British men and women who served in the Gulf have been given legal aid to pursue compensation cases against the Ministry of Defence. In the US, 2,200 Gulf veterans have died since the war, according to the Department of Veterans' Affairs. The veterans believe the illness stems from exposure to Iraqi chemical and nerve agents. They say a massive cocktail of inoculations against anthrax, botulin, pertussis, tetanus, typhoid, cholera, yellow fever, meningitis, hepatitis A and B, polio and nerve agent also made them unwell.

The British government refuses to accept that the syndrome exists. Armed forces minister Nicholas Soames wrote to Edwina Currie in January 1995: "There were no chemical or biological attacks in the Gulf ... there is certainly no scientific evidence of a mystery illness."

But a restricted report to the MoD obtained by Mr Tuite for Congress suggests that allied forces did come into contact with chemical weapons. The report, by Major JP Watkinson, commanding officer of the 21st Explosive Ordinance Disposal Squadron in August 1991, says a 250-gallon tank of chemicals found in Kuwait after Iraqi forces fled tested positively for mustard - a powerful blister weapon.

Captain Michael Johnson, commander of the US 54th Chemical Troop, was called in to look at the tank. In a report to the US government last year, Johnson confirmed the tank contained "Iraqi blister and phosgene agents". He added: "I can confirm that at least one coalition soldier (British) did experience exposure to a liquid chemical agent." That soldier was burnt on the arm by the liquid and taken to hospital.

Another congressional report outlines how the Iraqis used chemical mines and how missile attacks triggered chemical alarms. It says a Czech Chemical Defence Unit found traces of the nerve agent sarin near the Saudi/Iraqi border. Eighteen members of this unit "are believed to be suffering from Gulf war illnesses," it says.

Mr Tuite said US and British defence officials fear huge compensation claims if they accept the existence of Gulf war syndrome. Two US law firms have filed multi-million-dollar class actions on behalf of Gulf veterans against companies which provided Iraq with raw materials for chemical weapons.