Iraq 'used US biotoxins in Gulf war'

Simon Tisdall, Guardian, 11 February 1994, page 13

Senate report says evidence shows allied troops did come under chemical weapons attack, Simon Tisdall in Washington writes

The United States government licensed the export to Iraq of anthrax and other highly toxic biological agents which were subsequently used by President Saddam Hussein against allied servicemen during the Gulf war, according to a US senate investigation.

The investigation says the attacks, involving "cocktails" of biological and chemical warfare agents, have emerged as the prime suspect for the mysterious illness known as Gulf Syndrome which has afflicted thousands of US and British servicemen and, in many cases, their families too.

Rejecting the Pentagon's claim that allied troops did not come under biological or chemical weapons attack during the Gulf conflict, the Senate report documents numerous first-hand accounts of Frog and Scud Soviet-made missile attacks on US units in January 1991.

The report says the evidence suggest the Iraqi missiles carried "a variety of nerve gas, vesicant and blood agents, blister agents and biotoxins".

Unveiling the investigation, a Democrat senator, Don Riegle, revealed that in the 1980s the US commerce department had approved numerous shipments to Iraq of biological agents from a Maryland-based company.

The exported biotoxins included bacillus anthracis, the organism that causes the often fatal infectious disease known as anthrax; and clostridium botulinum, which causes vomiting, muscular spasms, and weakness, and other symptoms associated with Gulf Syndrome.

Mr Riegle listed other approved sales to Iraq by the US of brucella melitensis, bacteria that causes chronic fatigue among other symptoms, and clostridium perfringens - a highly toxic bacteria which causes gas gangrene and eventually systemic illness.

In addition, he said, several shipments of E Coli and genetic materials, and human and bacterial DNA, were shipped directly to the Iraq Atomic Energy Commission.

"From at least 1985 through 1989, the United States government approved the sale of quantities of potentially lethal biological agents that could have been cultured or grown in large quantities in an Iraqi biological warfare programme," he said.

The exports of biotoxins to Iraq, despite the Reagan and Bush administration's knowledge that President Saddam had used chemical and biological weapons in his war with Iran and against Kurdish civilians, "violates every standard of logic and common sense", said Mr Riegle, who is chairman of the Senate banking committee which oversees the Export Administration Act.

A spokesman for the Maryland company, American Type Culture Collections, confirmed the exports of biotoxins to Iraq, saying they were requested by the commerce department after representations from Iraqi officials.

The exports reportedly ceased in February 1989, when stricter rules were implemented.

The Senate disclosures follow lengthy but so far inconclusive inquiries in the US, and in Britain through the Scott inquiry, into Western governments' exports of dual-use military and commercial materiel to Iraq before the Gulf war.

The disclosures also follow revelations, first published in Britain by the Guardian last December, that children born to veterans since the Gulf war have exhibited unusually high rates of life-threatening illnesses and birth defects.

Mr Riegle criticised the Pentagon for its silence about Iraq's capabilities and for ignoring its own 1992 assessment that Iraq had obtained the capacity to deliver warheads packed with biological agents.

He told Congress that, given the symptoms reported by Gulf Syndrome sufferers, the investigators could not find "any other logical explanation for these illnesses" than that they were caused by exposure to biological and/or chemical agents.

"There is alarming and growing evidence that the illness appears to be spreading to the spouses and children of affected veterans," Mr Riegle said.

The Senate staff investigation divides the victims into two categories: those men and women who were directly exposed to toxic agents during Iraqi missile attacks, and those who were exposed downwind as a result of repeated allied bombing of Iraq's Muthanna nuclear, chemical and biological weapons complex north-west of Baghdad.

The Senate report chronicles, for example, an attack on the 644th US Ordinance Company in the Saudi desert on January 17 1991.

An NCO, William Hicks, reported hearing a loud explosion followed by the sounding of chemical weapons alarms. Mr Hicks said his face began to burn as he ran for a bunker.

Several soldiers reported illnesses shortly afterwards, and of the 644th's 110 members, 85 now suffer from medical problems, according to the Senate investigation.

Mr Riegle described the American biotoxin exports as a scandal matched only by the Pentagon's later treatment of Gulf Syndrome victims.

I am asking the department of defence to establish a disability compensation rating for Gulf war veterans ... regardless of the ability to arrive at a definitive diagnosis," he told Congress.

He also demanded that the administration's recently created Gulf Syndrome taskforce should investigate as a matter of urgency "the reported transmission of these illnesses to the spouses and children of these veterans and to assess what, if any, public hazard might exist".

The British government has not accepted the existence of Gulf Syndrome and, like the Pentagon, disputes claims that British troops were exposed to biological and chemical weapons attacks.