More than a dozen U.S. soldiers have been evacuated from an Iraqi military compound after tests by a mobile laboratory confirmed evidence of deadly sarin nerve gas, reports Knight Ridder News Service.
According to the report, members of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division had been sent earlier for chemical-weapons decontamination after exhibiting symptoms of possible exposure to nerve agents.
A day of testing brought initial results of positive exposure, then negative; but a third round of sampling by an Army Fox mobile nuclear, biological and chemical detection laboratory confirmed the existence of sarin.
Preliminary field tests on the material suggest it contains several banned chemical weapons, including deadly nerve agents, reports Fox News.
The Reuters News Agency reported Maj. Michael Hamlet of the 101st Airborne Division said the nerve agents sarin and tabun and the blister agent lewisite appeared to be present at the site.
“If tests from our experts confirm this, this could be the smoking gun. It would prove [Saddam Hussein] has the weapons we have said he has all along,” Hamlet said.
Sgt. Todd Ruggles, a biochem expert with the 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne told Knight Ridder “I was right” that chemical agents Iraq has denied having were present.
Shipmates on USS Nimitz instructed on chemical suits, gas masks
Not only were soldiers sent for decontamination, but a CNN cameraman, a Knight Ridder reporter, and two Iraqi POWs were reportedly hosed down with water and bleach.
The suspect chemicals were discovered at two sites: an agricultural warehouse loaded with 55-gallon chemical drums, and a military compound.
Pentagon sources told Fox News a prisoner of war led U.S. forces to the military camp in Albu Mahawish near Karbala.
Soldiers who were guarding the military compound reportedly began vomiting, and experienced dizziness and skin blotches – all symptoms of exposure to small amounts of nerve agent.
Knight Ridder says chemical tests 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.”
Hundreds of gas masks and chemical suits were also discovered, as well as a cache of ammunition.
Citing a top official with the 1st Marine Division, NPR reported U.S. forces recovered around 20 medium-range missiles equipped with sarin and mustard gas. The BM-21 missiles were reportedly “ready to fire.”
Sarin, considered one of the most caustic nerve agents, can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin.
Those who tested positive were isolated, while the others were evacuated. Within an hour, those believed to have been exposed were hosed down by water trucks as troops lathered themselves with detergent and bleach.
“We do think there’s stuff in this compound and the other (agricultural warehouse) compound, but we think it’s buried,” Elena Aravjo, a first lieutenant with the 63rd Chemical Company told Knight Ridder. “I’m really suspicious of both of those compounds.”
The ranking officers, including Col. Joseph Anderson, Brig. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley and Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, made no official comment about suspected nerve agents.
The Pentagon has not confirmed the media reports, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld cautioned against jumping to conclusions at a news briefing this afternoon.