April 6, 2003, 11:50PM
By TOM LASSETER
Knight-Ridder Tribune News
ALBU MUHAWISH, Iraq — U.S. soldiers evacuated an Iraqi military compound early today after tests by a mobile laboratory detected the presence of sarin, a powerful nerve agent.
The testing came after more than a dozen soldiers from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division 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.
The soldiers, along with a Knight Ridder reporter, a CNN cameraman and two Iraqi prisoners of war, were sent for decontamination and hosed down with water and bleach.
A spokesman for U.S. Central Command in Qatar said the military was investigating.
If subsequent tests uphold the findings, it would be the first evidence of weapons of mass destruction, a cornerstone of the Bush administration’s rationale for the invasion of Iraq and something that eluded United Nations inspectors for months.
Early tests for chemical agents at the compound were inconsistent. Some showed the presence of so-called G-Series nerve agents, which include tabun and sarin, both of which Iraq has been known to possess. A hand-held scanning device also indicated the soldiers had been exposed to a nerve agent. Other tests, however, came back negative.
A senior defense official in the United States said Sunday night that the military was aware of “false positive” readings, and there were “no deleterious effects” on military personnel due to nerve-agent exposure.
More precise tests by an Army Fox mobile nuclear, biological and chemical detection laboratory indicated the existence of sarin and triggered the evacuation of the captured military compound by dozens of soldiers.
Sgt. Todd Ruggles, a biochemical expert attached to the 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne said: “I was right” that the nerve agent was present.
Even as the tests were being done, high-ranking commanders hastened to the scene on Sunday to examine the sites, including Col. Joseph Anderson, 2nd Brigade commander; Brig. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley, assistant commander of the 101st Airborne for operations; and Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, division commander.
They made no comment afterward on what was contained in the sites near the village of Albu Muhawish, on the Euphrates River about 60 miles south of Baghdad.
U.S. soldiers found suspect chemicals at two sites: an agricultural warehouse containing 55-gallon chemical drums, which was later sealed off, and the 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.
“We do think there’s stuff in this compound and the other compound, but we think it’s buried,” said Army 1st Lt. Elena Aravjo of the 63rd Chemical Company. “I’m really suspicious of both of those compounds.”
Sarin, an odorless, colorless and tasteless substance, can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin and is considered one of the most volatile of the nerve agents, chemical weapons experts have said. A cloud of sarin can dissipate after several minutes or hours depending on wind.
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.