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Casualties of Saddam's chemical weapons arsenal

Wednesday, October 16, 2002

TEHRAN, Iran -- To understand the unending nightmare of an Iraqi chemical barrage, there's ward 10-D.

The patients -- all veterans of Iran's 1980-88 war with Iraq -- shuffle about in plastic sandals and pale yellow hospital pajamas. They talk little. Even a shallow breath can be painful.

In the special wing at Baqiatallah Hospital, run by the powerful Revolutionary Guards, the reality of Saddam Hussein's chemical weaponry is evident.

Doctors do what they can for some of the thousands of soldiers exposed to Iraqi poison gas. There are no cures. Just ways to lessen the ailments: scarred lungs, ravaged bowels, disorientation, welts and blisters.

About once a week, Iranian newspapers carry small items about another veteran succumbing to chemical-related disorders.

"I feel just half alive," whispered Jalal Taqvi, whose right side is numb and partially paralyzed. "The day I breathed the poison gas was the day I started to die."

He recalls every moment of the attack near the southwestern Iranian border city of Abadan in 1987. Soldiers started to wheeze and gasp. They were blinded by uncontrollable tears. And everywhere was the smell of onions -- a characteristic of mustard gas.

If U.N. weapons inspectors return, a prime objective will be to discover what -- if anything -- remains of Iraq's chemical arsenal.

Saddam's stockpile

Iraq insists it has abandoned its chemical, biological and nuclear arms programs. But U.S. authorities claim Iraq still has stockpiles of chemical and biological agents, which they fear could slip into the hands of terrorists.

In 1997, the year before the United Nations suspended operations in Iraq, the former head of the U.N. inspections team, Rolf Ekeus, said he believed Saddam maintained a "strategic capability" with chemicals.

Backed by the West during the eight-year war against Iran's Islamic regime, Iraq unleashed dozens of chemical attacks, according to international monitors. Two main Western-developed formulas were verified by U.N. investigators: mustard gas, an oily liquid first used in World War I whose vapor can remain deadly for days; and tabun, a nerve gas that causes convulsions and paralysis before death.

Estimates of Iranian battlefield deaths from chemical attacks range from hundreds to as many as 5,000. Thousands more were stricken but survived.

"Sometimes I feel fine. Then the problems return. Every breath becomes painful," said veteran Rashid Imani, who also lost his right foot in a mine blast.

"They burned our clothes after the attack. But they could do nothing for us. The demon of the chemical was inside us."

One of the ward's physicians, Dr. Kamran Zamanian, said nothing can reverse the damage.

"We just try to make them comfortable and take away some of the pain," he said. "For a doctor it is frustrating. You can never cure this."

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