Chemical weapons presence at Al Jaber Air Base judged "unlikely"

WASHINGTON, October 14, 1997 (GulfLINK)- A succession of seven chemical alerts in 20 hours at Al Jaber Air Base in southern Kuwait remain unconfirmed after a series of more sensitive tests for the chemical agent presence, the Pentagon's Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses (OSAGWI) has concluded. The U.S. Marines 1st Marine Division had reported these alerts during combat operations to retake the Air Base from Iraqis.

A report issued by OSAGWI on the Al Jaber investigation said that in addition to the alarms previously reporters, there were five other alerts-which occurred in about a four-hour period around midnight on February 24-25, 1991. These alerts were not recorded in any unit logs that could be found, but individuals who were interviewed remembered them.

They recalled making confirmatory tests with M256 chemical detection kits and uniformly stated that the M256 tests all showed that no chemical weapons were present. Since the M256 tests were the most sensitive and reliable tests available, the most likely source of the five alerts was nearby friendly artillery smoke, that was misidentified as chemical weapons smoke.

The sixth alert came around 6 p.m. on February 25 and this alert is recorded in various logs. But again, M256 instrument checks failed to find any chemicals.

The seventh alert came at 7:08 p.m. from a Fox chemical detection vehicle attached to the 1st Marine Division. An air sample by the MM-1 detector on the Fox registered mustard gas. Numerous units reported performing tests with M256 kits.

These kits do not give false positives from as many other substances as MM-1, and they can detect minute quantities of mustard only one percent as concentrated as the MM-1. None of the M256 kits detected any chemical agents. OSAGWI also noted that about 1,000 Iraqi prisoners taken that day were not wearing any protective gear, which may be an indication that chemical weapons were not be used during this time frame.

Al Jaber was the scene of intense combat during the ground war. During the clean up in the following month, none of the units around Al Jaber found any evidence of chemical weapons storage or use. Also, Marines in the area reported no chemical warfare casualties.

The Gulf War task force is assessing the strength of the evidence of chemical warfare reports on a scale ranging from "definitely" through "likely," "indeterminate," "unlikely" down to "definitely not." In this case, the probability of these seven chemical alerts has been assessed as "unlikely" to represent true exposures.

All together, nearly 30 people were interviewed about the Al Jaber Air Base, including Fox vehicle crew members, commanders, non-commissioned chemical specialists and other eye witnesses at the scene. Each individual helped to broaden the knowledge of the circumstances and events, which allowed a much better assessment than would have been possible otherwise.

All of the case narrative are issued as draft or interim reports. Case narratives are part of DoD's initiative to inform the public about its efforts to better understand the nature and possible causes of the illnesses experienced by some Gulf War veterans.

Bernard Rostker, the special assistant for Gulf War illnesses, said he hopes individuals with more knowledge about the incidents under investigation will be encouraged to come forward and provide more information. Individuals who have further information about the events at Al Jaber Air Base in February 1991 are encouraged to contact the Gulf War task force at 1-800-472-6719. The interim reports will be revised as more information becomes available, and will be reissued and the assessments adjusted as the evidence warrants.