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Chemical Arms' Effects Linger Long After War

Iranian victims of Iraqi attacks, both soldiers and civilians, are still suffering and dying 14 years after the nations' war ended.

November 19, 2002|Robin Wright | Times Staff Writer

KARAJ, Iran — His frail body perched on a pillow, Ali Shakiebeinejad whispered a few words at a time through a green plastic mask connected to an oxygen canister.

"I first noticed the beautiful smell. It was sweet, like garlic or roses," the former shoe repairman recalled. A deep racking cough interrupted him. "But I didn't know what it was."

Then only 19, the Iranian was too preoccupied with the rout of his military unit and his impending capture by the Iraqis. And for the next 27 months he was a prisoner of war.

Five years ago, the growing number of unusual symptoms -- a worsening cough, constant respiratory infections, gum disease that caused his teeth to fall out, pounding headaches and excessive weight loss -- were finally diagnosed. Doctors told Shakiebeinejad that he was a victim of mustard gas, the chemical weapon most used by Iraq during its eight-year war with Iran.

Fourteen years after the war's end, Shakiebeinejad represents the lingering -- and in many cases unanticipated -- impact of Iraq's use of chemical weapons. Fears that Iraq might still have such weapons of mass destruction -- from mustard gas to nerve agents such as Tabun to a nuclear weapons program -- drove the U.N. Security Council on Nov. 8 to unanimously approve a resolution calling on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime to disarm or face "serious consequences."

In a declassified report, the CIA estimated in 1991 that Iran suffered more than 50,000 casualties, including untold thousands of deaths, from Iraq's use of several chemical weapons. But Iran claims the tally has since soared, as both troops and civilians have developed the telltale symptoms up to 15 years later because low-dose exposure deferred physical deterioration or collapse.

"We are beginning to understand that we may only have seen the tip of the iceberg. We may not yet have seen the majority of victims," said Dr. Farhad Hashemnezhad, a young pulmonary specialist who has reluctantly become an expert on chemical weapons.

"Many patients don't know that their complaints -- coughing, tightness in the chest, difficult respiration -- have anything to do with chemical weapons, especially after all these years," the doctor said. "At least 20% of the current patients are civilians who didn't think they were close enough to be exposed."

One of the common causes of civilian casualties was use of water contaminated by chemical weapons, he said.

Doctors became so concerned by the growing number of cases that the government two years ago started putting ads in Iranian papers calling on anyone who had been in specified areas during the war to report to one of the nation's 30 centers for the disabled and get medical checkups. What the ads didn't say, to avoid panic, was that the areas had been hit by Iraqi chemical weapons.

Shakiebeinejad, who at 33 weighs only 107 pounds, is not expected to live more than six months, doctors have told his wife. His closest army buddy during the battle at Al Shalamshah died several weeks ago.

"There are more and more like him. They're like candles, day by day they're melting," said Mohammed Aliani, deputy director of the Center for the Disabled here in Karaj, an industrial city about 25 miles northwest of Tehran.

At the Sasan Hospital in Tehran, Mohsen Kompany, a former car mechanic, resembles an emaciated concentration camp survivor: yellow skin tightly covering jutting bones. He too is permanently attached to oxygen. Kompany, 34, remembers the smell of newly mown grass when the Iraqis dropped mustard gas bombs on his army unit. But he remembers little else, as he has the memory of an early Alzheimer's patient. Doctors say he will die any day.

Like most of the current cases, Kompany was targeted in the last two years of the war. Iraq first began developing its chemical-weapons capability in the early 1970s, deliberately enrolling students in foreign schools with the goal of developing "a pool of technically competent scientists," according to a second declassified CIA report.

But Iraq was often clumsy in its early usage of the weapons between 1983 and 1986, U.S. intelligence says. The Iraqi military frequently fired chemical-laden artillery shells or dropped bombs in unsuitable weather, "with wind carrying the agent toward their own troops," the CIA report says. Pilots also released bombs and rockets from altitudes too high to have much impact or too low for their fuses to function.

By late 1986, however, Iraq was boldly using chemical weapons as an "integral part" of its battlefield strategy and a "regular and recurring tactic," the CIA reported. The only constraint was availability -- a problem Iraq worked hard to remedy.

In 1988, the use of several chemical weapons became a decisive factor in the grisly war, eventually forcing Iran to agree to a U.N.-brokered cease-fire. Iran's ill-equipped medical staff couldn't cope with the numbers, and many efforts to help produced "secondary contamination" among both transporters and medical staff, the CIA said.

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