Tue, Jun 15, 2004 - Page 7 News List

UK plans hearings on illnesses linked to first Gulf war

An independent inquiry into whether more than 5,000 veterans of the first Gulf war became ill as a result of their service was to be announced yesterday.

Lord Lloyd of Berwick, the former law lord, was expected to conduct hearings in London on the veterans' reports of illnesses over the next few months. The hearings pose a political dilemma for the UK government, which has refused to authorize a public inquiry for six years.

He is expected to invite current and former ministers, civil servants and health and scientific experts as well as veterans to establish the medical consequences of service in that war.

Lord Lloyd has announced his determination to begin with no preconceptions about the veterans' claims that they were made ill, but said he believes an inquiry will help settle relations between former service personnel and the Ministry of Defense.

The arrangements for an inquiry have been prepared in confidence, leaving the government little time to decide how to react. Although Lord Lloyd will not have formal legal powers, ministers will have to consider how to respond to invitations to give evidence, as a refusal to cooperate could be damaging politically.

Pressure for an inquiry was first applied in 1998 by the Royal British Legion, an organization representing ex-service members. The calls have intensified since February, when an eight-year legal battle by more than 2,000 veterans collapsed because of a ruling that there was insufficient scientific evidence to pursue their case. The Legal Services Commission withdrew funding after reviews of research could find no specific cause for the veterans' health problems.

But lawyers said there was no doubt many of them were ill and that their suffering was genuine.

Many former troops who served in the Gulf during the 1991 conflict have reported symptoms such as muscle weakness, neurological symptoms, headaches, depression, skin rashes and shortness of breath.

Suggested causes have ranged from pre-conflict injections that have been described as "a veritable blitzkreig on the immune system" to pollution from burning oil wells, stress, depleted uranium and organophosphates, to the effects of low-level exposure to chemical agents destroyed during and after the war.

A US congressional investigation has suggested that far more troops and civilians were exposed to chemical agents than previously estimated by the Pentagon and CIA.

The UK government has not absolutely ruled out an inquiry, but it does not regard one as useful. It has instead stressed the value of its research program, much of which has compared the health of veterans with those who did not serve in the Gulf.

This has failed to find any single Gulf war syndrome, although veterans are twice as likely to report symptoms when asked about them than non-veterans. Death rates are similar between the two groups.

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