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2 U.S. soldiers exposed to sarin after artillery shell explodes

BAGHDAD, Iraq—An artillery round that contained the deadly nerve gas sarin exploded in Baghdad over the weekend, exposing two American soldiers to mild nerve poisoning, the U.S.-led coalition announced Monday.

It was the first such chemical exposure since U.S. troops entered Iraq more than a year ago in an invasion that the Bush administration claimed was justified in part because Saddam Hussein had stockpiled thousands of such weapons. Earlier this month, a shell with residue of another chemical agent, mustard, was found by a bomb demolition team but was disarmed before it exploded.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, spokesman for U.S. military operations in Iraq, told journalists the sarin shell was rigged as an improvised explosive device, or IED, inside a bag discovered by an American convoy. He said it was unlikely that whoever planted the bomb knew it contained sarin.

A U.S. official in Washington, who asked not to identified because he had not been authorized to speak on the subject, said U.S. experts are concerned that "there are more of these kinds" of munitions available to insurgents fighting the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.

Sarin is a deadly substance that blocks the transmission of key nervous system enzymes, causing convulsions, paralysis, loss of consciousness and potentially fatal respiratory failure. Low-level exposures can be treated with antidotes, if administered quickly.

It's unknown how many such shells might still exist in Iraq. U.S. soldiers assigned to discover Saddam's stockpiles of so-called weapons of mass destruction have so far failed to find any. On Monday, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said more tests were needed to confirm the presence of sarin.

"I've seen the intelligence on the matter," Rumsfeld said during a question and answer session at the Heritage Foundation. He noted that military officials had run a field test on the agent, "which is not perfect, and what we ought to do is to get the samples someplace where they can be tested very carefully before coming to a conclusion as to precisely what it was."

Kimmitt provided few details of the weekend incident. He said the shell detonated, leading to a "small dispersal of agent" and that two members of an explosives team were treated. He did not say how seriously hurt the soldiers were.

"It is a weapon we believe was stocked from the ex-regime time, and it had been thought to be an ordinary artillery shell set up to explode like an ordinary IED," Kimmitt said. "When it exploded, it indicated that it actually had some sarin in it."

The U.S. official in Washington said the explosive was a 155 mm artillery shell that detonated on a roadway near Baghdad airport on Saturday. The blast caused no injuries, but two U.S. soldiers who transported the remnants of the munitions later showed symptoms consistent with low-level nerve poisoning.

An initial analysis indicated that the shell pre-dated the 1991 Gulf War and was an "experimental binary munition," the U.S. official said.

A binary munition contains two substances stored in separate parts of the shell that mix after it is fired, forming sarin.

The amount of sarin that formed in Saturday's detonation was probably low because there was insufficient time for the two substances to mix properly, the official said.

"We don't yet know the concentration of the sarin," he said, adding that the shell had the capacity of holding between two liters and five liters of components. He said the device had no markings on it to indicate it was a chemical shell.

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(Landay reported from Washington, Allam from Baghdad.)

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040517 USIRAQ SARIN

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