Gulf War veterans suing companies for chemical exports
From Phil Hirschkorn and Richard Roth
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Twelve years after the Persian Gulf War began, some American veterans of that conflict are finding new ammunition in their fight to find out who supplied Iraq chemicals that might have made them sick.
More than 5,000 veterans are plaintiffs in a lawsuit that accuses companies of helping Iraqi President Saddam Hussein build his chemical warfare arsenal. The plaintiffs are among the tens of thousands who came down with "Gulf War Illness," a debilitating series of ailments that can include chronic fatigue, skin rashes, muscle joint pain, memory loss, and brain damage.
Now, plaintiffs' attorneys have acquired, for the first time, what they believe is strong evidence of which companies supplied Iraq the chemicals that might have been used to produce mustard gas, sarin nerve gas and VX.
The supplier list, shown to CNN, is included in Iraq's 1998 weapons declaration to the United Nations, parts of which were resubmitted to weapons inspectors last month. Sources tell CNN the list is an authentic document, but attorneys for the companies question its accuracy and say the lawsuit is without merit.
The Iraqi list names 56 suppliers of chemicals and equipment to process them. A majority are based in Europe.
"If they are hit in the pocketbook, if they know the dictator they provide this stuff to is eventually gonna turn them over to the public and they are gonna be held accountable for what they've done, they're less likely to sell these things to Saddam or somebody like [him] in the future," plaintiffs' attorney Gary Pitts said.
The lawsuit, originally filed by Pitts in a civil court in Brazoria County, Texas, in 1994, alleges that companies knew "products and/or manufacturing facilities supplied ... were to be used to produce chemical and biological weapons."
The suit seeks at least $1 billion in damages for medical expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering.
Seven companies in the Iraqi weapons declaration have been named defendants. Pitts said the plaintiffs will sue more of the listed companies next.
Germany is home to the most major suppliers listed in Iraq's 1998 U.N. declaration. The Netherlands and Switzerland each are home to three companies on the list. France, Austria and the United States each are home to two. The declaration says Singapore was the largest exporter of chemical weapons precursors. Other countries home to alleged chemical exporters to Iraq include India, Egypt, Spain and Luxembourg, with one each.
The veterans' lawsuit has moved slowly for eight years. Neither the U.S. government nor the United Nations weapons inspection agency, formerly the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) and now the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, would share supplier information requested by Pitts.
"UNSCOM had a practice of not revealing names of companies of suppliers of equipment to Iraq because they often had the possibility of getting information from these companies, and the best way to get these companies to talk to them was not to publish their names to start with," Hans Blix, the chief weapons inspector, told CNN.
Former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter, contacted by Pitts, acquired the list for the veterans during a meeting last year with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz.
"I brought out a series of compact discs which contained the totality of the Iraqi declaration," Ritter told CNN. The "full, final and complete" weapons declaration has never been made public. Ritter gave the CDs to Pitts.
"I am assisting United States veterans, heroes," Ritter said. "People who put on our uniform, defended our country in time of war, who have been abandoned by their government."
About 209,000 Gulf War veterans have filed claims with the Veterans Administration, and 161,000 of them are receiving disability payments.
Neither American company listed -- Alcolac International, based in Baltimore, Maryland; and Al-Haddad Trading, based in Nashville, Tennessee -- are still in business.
No one from Al-Haddad could be reached.
Alcolac paid a fine in 1989 under U.S. law for one charge of exporting thiodiglycol, a chemical that could be used to make mustard gas, but that shipment was destined for another country.
"I am unaware of any direct sale from Alcolac to Iraq," says attorney Ron Welsh, who represents Rhodia, which owns the defunct Alcolac's assets.
Welsh said the veteran's lawsuit "has no meat."
One of the largest alleged suppliers to Iraq's chemical program, according to Iraq's list, was the German company Karl Kolb. A spokesman for the company said it has done business with Iraq for 35 years, but he denied any connection to its weapons programs.
The German firm Preussag, since acquired by the travel conglomerate TUI, supplied chemical precursors for sarin nerve gas, according to Iraq's declaration. The firm told CNN that claim is untrue.
Several German manufacturers listed -- Schott Glas, Klockner Ina, Ludwig Hammer, Heberger Bau -- denied connections to Iraq's weapons plants and said the lawsuit's accusations are false.
"Schott Glas is a manufacturer of glass and glass components, not of weapons," attorney Palmer Hutcheson said.
"The plaintiffs don't have a case. They have failed to show evidence that Klockner was involved in any way in helping Iraq produce chemical or biological weapons," attorney Brian Hurst said.
The Dutch company Melchemie denied that it supplied "strategic raw materials" to Iraq. It has acknowledged improperly shipping chemicals to an Iraqi agricultural producer once, in 1984. Melchemie paid a fine and says it bought back the containers. The firm said its Iraqi exports are now limited to tomato and cucumber seeds.
A Dutch-based subsidiary of Phillips Petroleum exported chemicals to Iraq but nothing illegal, according to Sam Stubbs, an attorney for Phillips. Stubbs said, "Any substance Phillips would have sold to Iraq would have been a useful and beneficial product, if used properly."
The Indian company Exomet Plastics, now part of EPC Industrie, said the only chemicals it shipped to Iraq were for pesticides. The firm told CNN that when it was advised of the chemicals' possible misuse, it stopped further shipments.
"There were no restrictions for exporting these chemicals at the time the exports were made," said EPC attorney S.R. Mate.
Despite their names being listed by Iraq, the French firm De Dietrich and the Portuguese-owned Tafisa denied ever doing business with Iraq.
Half of the firms listed by Iraq and now targeted by the lawsuit as "major suppliers" are either defunct or were unreachable.
"We have thousands of American veterans who continue to suffer," Ritter said. I don't give a damn about these companies. If they're innocent, they won't pay a price. If they have done something they need to be ashamed of, then let your shame be public."
CNN's Claudia Otto in Berlin, Germany; Chris Burns in Frankfurt, Germany; Andrei Braun and Karine Djili-Bienfait in Paris, France; Al Goodman in Madrid, Spain; Ram Ramgopal in New Delhi, India; Maria Ressa in Singapore; and Abighail Brigham, Shira Kavon and Elizabeth Hathway in New York contributed to this report.