US troops win pay-out for Gulf war mystery illness

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The Clinton administration yesterday changed heart and said it was ready to compensate US servicemen suffering from the so-called 'Gulf war Syndrome'. It insists nevertheless there is still no conclusive proof of a single specific illness afflicting thousands of veterans of the 1991 war against Iraq.

The statement came from the Veterans Affairs Secretary, Jesse Brown, in testimony to a congressional committee, less than 24 hours after a group of veterans filed a dollars 1bn ( pounds 666m) lawsuit in a Houston court against 11 US chemical companies. The lawsuit claims the mysterious ailment was caused by chemicals sold by the companies to the Baghdad regime.

Mr Brown yesterday denied any connection between his announcement and the lawsuit. The government's willingness to pay, he declared, was simply the fair and 'pro-active' thing to do.

He urged that compensation be available to anyone reporting symptoms of the disorder within two years after their return to the US.

A bill going through Congress would set a one-year time-limit for submitting claims. But Mr Brown said that this would discriminate against men who had not come forward early, for fear of being discharged. More than 10,000 former servicemen could be victim of the illness, whose symptoms include neurological disorders, loss of memory, skin rashes and heart problems.

A host of possible causes has been advanced - Iraqi chemical or biological agents, fumes from the oil fires in Kuwait, even preventive vaccines from the Pentagon - but none has been proven. 'We don't know what's wrong with them, but we do know there is a physical or organic basis to their problems,' Mr Brown said.

Individual compensation should depend on the severity of the condition. But the total pay-out would probably be 'very much higher' than the dollars 45.5m budgeted in the existing bill. The response, he said, was 'just a continuation of the cost of the war'.