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Troops, journalists undergo cleanup for nerve gas exposure

BC-USIRAQ-CHEMICALS-1st-LEDE:WA—world (580 words)

ALBU MUHAWISH, Iraq—U.S. soldiers evacuated an Iraqi military compound on Sunday after tests by a mobile laboratory confirmed evidence of sarin nerve gas. More than a dozen soldiers of the Army's 101st Airborne Division had been sent earlier for chemical weapons decontamination after they exhibited symptoms of possible exposure to nerve agents.

The evacuation of dozens of soldiers Sunday night followed a day of tests for the nerve agent that came back positive, then negative. Additional tests Sunday night by an Army Fox mobile nuclear, biological and chemical detection laboratory confirmed the existence of sarin.

Sgt. Todd Ruggles, a biochemical expert attached to the 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne said, "I was right" that chemical agents Iraq has denied having were present.

In addition to the soldiers sent for decontamination, a Knight Ridder reporter, a CNN cameraman and two Iraqi prisoners of war also were hosed down with water and bleach.

U.S. soldiers found the suspect chemicals at two sites: an agricultural warehouse containing 55-gallon chemical drums and a military compound, which soldiers had begun searching on Saturday. The soldiers also found hundreds of gas masks and chemical suits at the military complex, along with large numbers of mortar and artillery rounds.

Chemical tests for nerve agents in the warehouse came back positive for so-called G-Series nerve agents, which include sarin and tabun, both of which Iraq has been known to possess. More than a dozen infantry soldiers who guarded the military compound Saturday night came down with symptoms consistent with exposure to very low levels of nerve agent, including vomiting, dizziness and skin blotches.

A hand-held scanning device also indicated the soldiers had been exposed to a nerve agent. Two tests at the compound were negative, but further testing indicated sarin was present.

Sarin can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin and is considered one of the most feared but also the most volatile of the nerve agents, chemical weapons experts have said. A cloud of sarin can dissipate after several minutes or hours depending on wind and temperature.

The soldiers, journalists and prisoners of war who tested positive were isolated as everyone else evacuated the area. After about 45 minutes, the group was walked, single-file, down a road for about a city block to where two water trucks awaited them. The men stepped between the two trucks and were hosed down as they lathered themselves with a detergent containing bleach.

1st Lt. Elena Aravjo of the 63rd Chemical Company said she thought there might well be chemical weapons at the site. "We do think there's stuff in this compound and the other (agricultural warehouse) compound, but we think it's buried," she said. "I'm really suspicious of both of those compounds."

The suspicions, or at the very least concerns, were widespread. The 2nd Brigade's commander, Col. Joseph Anderson, toured the site on Sunday, as did Brig. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley, the assistant commander of the 101st Airborne for operations. Shortly after, the division commander, Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, also visited the site.

The ranking officers made no official comment about suspected nerve agents. Troops not wearing chemical protection suits later reoccupied the military complex, while sections of the agricultural warehouse remained taped off.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.