Kurds show signs, little evidence, that Iraq used chemical weapons. VERIFYING KURDISH CLAIMS

His face is bronze, framed by an obsidian beard. He has the bearing of a fighter. His eyes have the hard edge of a mountain guerrilla, who has fought in the dun-colored hills of Iraq for years. He is clearly not the kind of man to be bothered by small ailments. Yet, for a visitor, he pulls his collar aside and points to a row of tiny blisters on his neck.

They seem unremarkable. But, to Bahagat Nife, they are the proof of the horror he has witnessed - a horror, he says, that forced him to run for his life.

The blisters, he says, were caused by chemical bombs, flung from Iraqi airplanes against him and his fellow Kurds - a non-Arab, ethnic minority that, for two decades, has fought for independence from Iraq. For much of the past eight years, the Kurds received support from Iran. But as soon as a cease-fire was declared in the Gulf war, the Kurds claim, the Iraqi government exacted vengeance with a choking chemical cloud.

It is a claim that has found some acceptance in the West, as the United States Senate demands an investigation and calls for sanctions against Iraq, and European nations begin their own inquiry.

But, for now, the case against Iraq depends more on the accounts of 60,000 Kurdish refugees in Turkey who say they are fleeing chemical attacks, than on hard physical evidence of chemical injuries.

The wounds the Kurds bear, Turkish officials say, are as consistent with a hard life, poor hygiene, and conventional conflict as they are with chemical warfare. Symptoms such as skin lesions, irritated eyes, and breathing difficulties are said to be the result of untreated infections among a poor, rural people.

``I don't see in this population signs of chemical bombs,'' says Dr. Mustafa Yildez, an official of the Turkish Red Crescent, which is treating 12,000 refugees at a camp just outside Diyarbakir.

The same is true in 16 other camps for Kurds, says Hayri Kozakcioglu, regional governor. ``We've sent doctors to all these areas. But they couldn't find proof.''

Yet the stories of refugees at the Diyarbakir camp are consistent: The attacks started early on Aug. 24, the refugees say, with the arrival of Iraqi aircraft. They released bombs that didn't detonate loudly, as usual. Instead, they delivered a yellow vapor, described as smelling sweet or pungent, like fermented wheat.

The clouds were choking, the refugees say and death came quickly to those who breathed in the vapors. The people fell to the ground or, if they were sleeping, did not wake up. Afterward, their bodies turned blue.

Some of these accounts are consistent with the use of cyanide, a relatively crude form of chemical agent. The temporary loss of vision indicates possible low-level exposure to nerve-agents. The skin lesions are consistent with exposure to a blistering agent such as mustard gas.

Some Western analysts pin the variety of symptoms to the use of impure agents that produce unpredictable results. Others say Iraq may be mixing several kinds of chemical shells to heighten lethalness.

Western intelligence agencies claim that Iraq does have the capability to manufacture chemical agents, using equipment and knowhow imported, ostensibly, for pesticide production. UN investigators have repeatedly concluded that Iraq used chemical munitions in the Gulf war.

It is unlikely that traces of the agents still linger, and without quick access into Iraq, experts say, it will be hard to verify alleged use of chemical weapons.

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