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Troops, journalists undergo cleanup for nerve gas

ALBU MUHAWISH, Iraq—More than a dozen soldiers of the Army's 101st Airborne Division underwent chemical weapons decontamination on Sunday after they exhibited symptoms of possible exposure to nerve agents.

Preliminary tests indicated that nerve agents were present, but subsequent tests were negative and additional testing is under way. Nevertheless, 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.

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

On Sunday, an initial test for nerve agents at the compound was positive. A handheld scanning device also indicated the soldiers had been exposed to a nerve agent. But two subsequent tests at the compound were negative.

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.

Sgt. Todd Ruggles, a biochemical expert attached to the 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne said he had no doubt chemical agents were present.

However, when the division's 63rd Chemical Company was called to the military compound, its tests came back negative. But 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 remain taped off.

The military complex, ranking officers said, was probably clean and the positive tests appeared to be a fluke. But chemical experts continued testing at the compound, the warehouse and other sites.


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