Iraq may have used a biological weapon in the early stages of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, according to an investigator who was abruptly fired last year from the White House panel looking into Gulf War Syndrome.
In a report released Tuesday on the Internet, Jonathan Tucker examines a mysterious explosion in the sky near the Saudi port of Al Jubayl - and the subsequent illnesses of Navy Seabees from the 24th Naval Mobile Construction Battalion who were stationed nearby.
Their symptoms, both at the time and today, are consistent with exposure to fungal poisons called mycotoxins, the so-called "Yellow Rain" the Soviet Union was accused of using in Cambodia and Laos more than a decade ago, Tucker says.
And United Nations inspectors discovered after the war that Iraq had conducted extensive research into two families of the toxins, which can cause both immediate and long-term illnesses.
Iraq admitted it had produced large quantities of a fungal toxin and installed it in weapons before the war began, but has denied using it.
"They were at least playing with it," said Tucker, who directs a project on chemical and biological weapons proliferation at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. "The question is, did they produce it in quantity and use it?"
About 3 a.m. on Jan. 19, 1991, U.S. forces around Al Jubayl reported a bright flash and double explosion above the clouds.
Within minutes of the explosion, Seabees say a dense yellowish mist descended on their camps, with a sharp, acrid odor and strange metallic taste "like sucking on a penny."
Some Seabees began to choke while others suffered such profuse nasal secretions they fouled their gas masks. Exposed skin felt like it was on fire, faces became numb. Within days, many of the same Seabees were suffering from flulike symptoms, including fever, sweating, diarrhea, muscle cramps and spasms. Rashes and blisters appeared on exposed skin, burst and became ulcerated sores.
"You had an explosion followed shortly after by symptoms of acute toxic exposure," Tucker said. "I've always found that incident the most compelling (evidence of Iraqi use of chemical or biological weapons)."
Three months ago, the New York Times reported that 114 of 152 of the Seabees contacted said they were sick with chronic illnesses they blamed on their duty in the Gulf. Several suffered from lymphatic cancers typical of mycotoxin exposure.
The Pentagon has maintained that the explosion was an Iraqi Scud missile being intercepted by a Patriot missile and that any injuries were probably because of exposure to falling rocket fuel.
But no Scud is listed near Al Jubayl in U.S. Central Command logs for that date - one log entry indicates a propeller plane may have been in the area - and the injuries are not consistent with rocket fuel.
A Pentagon spokesman said no one was available to comment Tuesday on Iraq's possible use of mycotoxin.
"Of course, it would not be in the Pentagon's interest to admit that this stuff was used, because they have no way to protect against it," Tucker said, adding that no biological detectors exist to warn troops it is being used.
"As far as I know, there is no antidote or treatment against fungal toxins. And they're very hard to decontaminate - they're very persistent. You can boil the stuff for an hour and it'll still be alive."
Tucker said he does not have proof mycotoxins were used, but said there is more than enough evidence to support further research. Tucker's report was posted on the Internet by Bruce Kletz, owner of Insignia Publishing, which also is publishing a book by a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst who quit after accusing CIA officials of covering up evidence about Iraqi chemical weapons.
The report's release was moved up after the New York Times on Tuesday reported that Tucker is scheduled to testify next month before a congressional committee about how he was fired as a chemical weapons investigator from the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses.
Tucker said he suspects that the committee's executive director abruptly fired him in December 1995 because he insisted on talking to veterans and others besides official government sources.
"She warned me on several occasions not to speak to unofficial sources," he said. "But I had a lot of leads that indicated to me that there were chemical weapons in the Kuwait Theater of Operations.
"The Pentagon was stonewalling me. I was getting ridiculous briefings by the Defense Intelligence Agency. So if I was going to meet the mandate that I thought the president had given the committee, I had to talk to outside sources."
Tucker said he was called into the director's office, told he was being dismissed and returned to his office to discover the hard drive had been removed from his computer.
Another supervisor watched as he cleaned out his desk.
No one from the presidential committee could be reached for comment
Tuesday. The committee's report is due to the president before the end
of the year.
Originally Published, December 25, 1996, Belleville News Democrat,
(c) 1996, Belleville News-Democrat, Belleville, Ill.
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