As a new study seems to establish for the first time that Gulf War syndrome—the mysterious, multisymptom condition often marked by pain and fatigue and reported by nearly one in three of the 700,000 U.S. veterans of that war—is in fact a physical condition, a potentially groundbreaking lawsuit focused on the chemical weapons used by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and the damage they may have caused American soldiers, is about to make its way to a Texas courtroom.
For nearly 20 years, Houston attorney Gary Pitts has compiled information on companies worldwide that allegedly developed materials Saddam used for his chemical weapons program. His latest lawsuit targets one company from that list—an American one. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Pitts alleges that at the time of the attack on the Kurds, Alcolac, Inc., a now-defunct Maryland company whose assets are owned by Paris-based chemical concern Rhodia, was, through a middleman, supplying Iraq with thiodiglycol (TDG), the chemical used to make mustard gas, a highly toxic agent used in the attack.
David Klucsik, a spokesman for Rhodia, tells The Daily Beast, “Alcolac did not supply thiodiglycol to Iraq. Not even the plaintiff [in the current court case] argues that Alcolac did so. Rather, plaintiff says that Alcolac sold TDG to an entity that then resold it to Iraq.”
Pitts’s suit will be heard at a time when chemical weapons and Baathist policies have returned to the front pages, as the Syrian government and opposition forces accuse each other of using them in an attack in Aleppo last week that killed 26 people. While preliminary reports show no chemical weapons were used, many observers believe the Syrian government may be preparing to use chemical weapons against the rebels. This month also marks the 25th anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s deadly chemical weapons attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja in northeast Iraq, which killed 5,000 Iraqi Kurds and injured about 10,000 others. It is considered the largest chemical attack on civilians in world history.
While Alcolac paid a fine in 1990 for one charge of exporting TDG in violation of the Export Administration Act, a 2011 Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling found that a corporation couldn’t be sued under the Torture Victim Protection Act, and that the Kurds who’d been victims of mustard gas, or were family members of those who had been, lacked standing to sue under the Alien Tort Statue, since they’d failed to prove purposeful conduct by Alcolac.
So Pitts has brought a new case on behalf of former First Armored Division field surgeon Victor Alcaron, a Gulf War veteran who says he was exposed to mustard gas while deployed to Iraq. “It caused serious lung problems,” says Pitts. “He was forced to medically retire from the military. He has trouble breathing. He is quite impaired.”
“It’s [also] likely that Hussein used this chemical precursor supplied by Alcolac in his attack on the Kurds,” says Pitts—adding that he believes at least one other American company supplied chemical precursors to Saddam: Al-Haddad Trading, owned and operated from Nashville by an Iraqi national who fled the U.S. when the Gulf War began. But that company has no assets from which to seek recovery.
This has been dubbed the worst “friendly fire” incident in American history, because the chemicals that the U.S. troops were exposed to may have been supplied to Iraq by the U.S. before the Gulf War.
Alcaron’s suit is scheduled for a June trial in Angleton, Texas, a small town outside of Houston near where Rhodia has an American office. To date, no American chemical maker has been found liable in a civil proceeding for harming an American soldier in Iraq during the Gulf War.
Klucsik, the Rhodia spokesman, says that while he “does not concede that Alcolac’s TDG made its way into Iraq … even if it did, there is no evidence that Iraq turned Alcolac’s TDG into mustard gas. Because of the multiple suppliers of TDG, in this liability litigation plaintiffs must show that Alcolac’s product was specifically changed into mustard gas and that he was exposed to that subsequent product.”
The man who actually delivered the thiodiglycol to Iraq is Frans Van Anraat, a Dutch businessman who is now in a Netherlands prison for war crimes. Van Anraat was arrested in 2004, as he appeared to be preparing to flee the country, and wassentenced to 17 years for complicity in war crimes for supplying raw materials for chemical weapons to Iraq—becoming the first person to be convicted of a crime related to the massacre of the Kurds. He was acquitted, though, of complicity in genocide, since it couldn’t be established that he knew of the regime’s genocidal intentions toward the group. Fifteen Kurds also participated in that trial as civil parties, claiming the symbolic amount of €680 by way of compensation for losses incurred.
“From what we can gather from news reports,” says Klucsik, “van Anraat was prosecuted and convicted of complicity in Iraq’s chemical weapons attacks on Kurds in 1986 through 1988. This is different than plaintiff’s claim that he was injured in 1991 in the first Gulf War.”
Kani Xulam, founder of the American Kurdish Information Network, which seeks to provide a Kurdish voice in the American discussion, will be paying close attention to the Texas case.
“If the plaintiff wins it will be healing both for American veterans who were exposed to these chemicals and for the Kurdish people,” he says. “I’ve waited a long time for the truth to come out. Of the more than 1,000 companies around the world that gave Saddam chemicals for his chemical weapons program, including American companies, not a single company has had a CEO come out and say ‘I’m sorry.’ Not one.”
For his part, Pitts says he has dozens of other veterans who came home suffering from Gulf War syndrome lined up, whom he hopes to represent in future cases against Alcolac.
It wasn’t just American companies that allegedly provided chemicals to Iraq before the Gulf War; it was evidently the U.S. government, which had quietly aided Iraq in its eight-year conflict with Iran that ended in 1988. Then-senator Donald Riegle, the Michigan Democrat who chaired Senate hearings on Iraq’s weapons programs and Gulf War illness, concluded nearly two decades ago that the U.S. exported a variety of materials to Iraq that were used to further Saddam’s chemical weapons development.
The Washington Post reported that in the mid-1980s—following a visit to Iraq by Donald Rumsfeld—dozens of biological agents were allegedly shipped to Iraq under license from the Commerce Department. They allegedly included anthrax, as well as insecticides, the Post reported, despite widespread suspicions that they were being used for chemical warfare.
In December, a peer-reviewed scientific study by James Tuite, a former Secret Service agent and Senate investigator, concluded that weather patterns carried an enormous toxic chemical cloud for 300 miles after the U.S. bombed Iraqi chemical weapon storage facilities, ultimately exposing U.S. troops to them, and setting off chemical weapons alarms in Saudi Arabia.
In testimony before Congress, disabled Gulf War veteran Anthony Hardie said he was exposed to mustard gas in a bunker complex in Kuwait. He says the anniversary of Saddam’s attack on the Kurds is an “important reminder” that Saddam used toxic chemicals against his own people and that these chemicals also harmed American troops in the Gulf War and, apparently, the subsequent Iraq War, whose 10-year anniversary is this month.
“The tragedy at Halabja is one of numerous instances of Iraq using chemical agents on Iraqi populations,” Hardie tells The Daily Beast. “And it’s more than a little ironic that one in three Gulf War veterans now have Gulf War illness and that their disabilities were brought about largely by earlier U.S.-approved sales of chemical warfare agents to the Iraqi regime.”
In a letter sent last year to his Gulf War veteran clients, Pitts wrote that even if only a few of their cases make it to trial, “[w]e will have been successful in our joint effort of discouraging companies to sell dictators the means to have weapons of mass destruction.”
Jamie Reno, an award-winning correspondent for Newsweek for 17 years, has also written for The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone, People,Men’s Journal, ESPN, Los Angeles Times, TV Guide, MSNBC, Newsmax,Entertainment Weekly, and USA Today. Reno, who’s won more than 85 writing awards, was the lead reporter on a Newsweek series on the 9/11 terrorist attacks that earned him and his colleagues the National Magazine Award for General Excellence, the highest award in magazine journalism. Reno, who’s also an acclaimed author, singer-songwriter, and 15-year cancer survivor, lives in San Diego with his wife, Gabriela, and their daughter, Mandy.