WASHINGTON - The Pentagon is warning 5,000 Persian Gulf War veterans that they may have been exposed to nerve gas when U.S. troops destroyed an Iraqi weapons depot in 1991.
A spokesman said the number could grow.
The 5,000 figure is far higher than the number of soldiers officials said they were trying to contact in June, when the Pentagon disclosed that U.S. troops might have been exposed to nerve gas in the destruction of the weapons depot at Khamisiyah in southern Iraq on March 4, 1991. The depot, known as Bunker 73, contained conventional and chemical weapons, officials said.
Officials said in June that 300 to 400 members of the Army's 37th Engineer Battalion from Fort Bragg, N.C., were near the demolition. Earlier this month, investigators for a presidential advisory panel said they believed as many as 1,100 U.S. troops were exposed in that incident.
However, an announcement Thursday described a second low-level exposure to chemical weapons, on March 10, 1991. Members of the 37th destroyed an unknown number of chemical rockets found in stacks of crated munitions in a pit area about two miles from Bunker 73.
Lawmakers expressed frustration over the Pentagon's handling of the matter.
"From my view, this tells me the cover up continues," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight subcommittee on human resources and intergovernmental relations.
"We are continually getting bad news and it is not going to stop," complained Mr. Shays, upset that no Pentagon official would appear before his panel to explain the growing number of potential exposures.
He said he will insist that Pentagon officials testify in the future.
"I think from beginning to end the Pentagon has done an abysmal job in handling this whole affair," said Rep. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent. "A lot of people are sick and people have the right to know the causes of the disease and have the right to know what has affected them."
Some believe unexplained illnesses known collectively as gulf war syndrome might be linked to exposure to Iraqi chemical weapons, but Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon said there is no conclusive evidence of a link. Mr. Bacon said, however, that some of the soldiers who have been interviewed about the 1991 incidents have reported health problems.
"We have not been able to find any unusual patterns in the people involved," Mr. Bacon said. "We're not saying there isn't, we're only saying we have not found it."
The Pentagon said letters will be sent to soldiers notifying them of possible exposure to chemical weapons.
Officials increased the number to 5,000 after discovering that an unknown number of nerve agent rockets were also present in a pit where stacks of crated munitions were destroyed on March 10, 1991.
"Low-level exposures may have taken place out to 25 kilometers (16 miles) from the Khamisiyah complex," on that date, a Pentagon statement said.
The Defense Department and the CIA are working with computer models to estimate the dispersion of chemical agents in the area, given wind and other weather conditions.
Bacon said it was unclear exactly which units were operating in the 16-mile area, but it has been reported that some members of the Army's XVIII Airborne Corps were there.
"As we learn more about Khamisiyah in these next few weeks, we expect to identify more troops who might have been exposed," a Pentagon statement said.
The Pentagon acknowledged last month it has known since November 1991 that chemical weapons such as nerve gas were stored at the Kamisiyah depot. But it said it did not know then that U.S. troops were involved in the depot's destruction the previous March, shortly after the war's end.
Earlier this month, the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses criticized as "superficial" the Pentagon's investigation of possible American troop exposures to Iraqi chemical agents and recommended that the probe be handed over to an outside body.
The panel was created by President Clinton last year to help get to the bottom of reports of mysterious, debilitating illnesses among many gulf war veterans.
Veterans who were in the Khamisiyah area in March 1991 who have not already enrolled in either the Defense Department or Veterans Affairs registry and examination program can call the following toll-free numbers: DoD 1-800-796-9699 or VA at 1-800-749-8387.