- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 31, 2008

BAQOUBA, Iraq — Two dozen U.S. soldiers and their interpreters were rushed to a hospital by helicopter this week from Diyala province’s “bread basket” after being exposed to chlorine gas while destroying an al Qaeda explosives cache.

Military sources said all but four of the 26 persons were quickly returned to duty. The remainder stayed longer at the U.S. military hospital at Ballad, northeast of Baghdad, for additional observation.

“It was really … scary,” said a soldier who was on the scene and requested anonymity. “We saw the strange color to the cloud and ran to help. We had to use litters as bridges across a canal to reach them. It was a 200-[yard] run each way.”

Lt. Col. Patrick Mackin, intelligence officer for the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, confirmed the incident. He said it occurred Tuesday about one mile north of Himbus.

The gas was in a metal cylinder, one of 19 found that usually hold propane but that al Qaeda packs with explosives for improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

Col. Mackin said photographs taken of the cylinders and other materials found at a previously bombed al Qaeda in Iraq camp, located in a palm grove, indicated that the devices had been buried there for months.

“I’d bet a paycheck that [the chlorine] had been there since summer,” he said. “I don’t think it indicates a renewed trend by [al Qaeda in Iraq] to use the stuff.”

Last summer, and even as late as October, al Qaeda had added a chlorine component to some of its vehicle-born IEDs.

“I think it wasn’t as effective as they wanted,” Col. Mackin said.

Diyala, northeast of Baghdad, has long been an al Qaeda stronghold. The province’s bread basket, a large agricultural area, was a main staging, storage and training area. The discovery of the chlorine cylinder was no surprise, Col. Mackin said.

U.S. and Iraqi forces entered the bread basket Jan. 8 as part of Operation Raider Harvest to rout al Qaeda from its provincial base. Officials said more than 58 al Qaeda suspects have been detained since the start of operations and more than 30 explosives caches discovered, often as the result of anonymous tips from local citizens. Those tips are expected to increase as villagers slowly overcome their fear of al Qaeda sleepers in the area.

U.S. military intelligence said the cache found at the al Qaeda camp Tuesday included 19 gas cylinders, two homemade mortar tubes, a homemade shoulder-fired rocket launcher and tripods for Dishka heavy machine guns.

The weapons were found buried just beneath the surface near the camp. Also found in the open was wreckage from what was thought to be a U.S. Predator unmanned aerial vehicle.

A U.S. Explosive Ordnance Disposal team had gathered the material together, set explosive charges to destroy the items and gone a safe distance before they detonated it. Other soldiers were 200 yards away. But neither group knew about the chlorine, which was blown in their direction by gusty winds that day.

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