WASHINGTON -- The regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has tested a chemical warhead loaded on an intermediate-range ballistic missile, adding a deadly new component to Baghdad's military capability in the Mideast crisis, according to top U.S. and Arab officials.
The test provided the first demonstration that Iraq is capable of ,, mounting a missile-borne poison chemical attack against distant targets, including key U.S. and Saudi military installations as well as vital oil facilities, ports and cities in the region, the officials said.
Iraq's three types of intermediate missiles have a range of 175 to almost 600 miles, enabling them to strike many vital military and civilian areas in northern and eastern Saudi Arabia.
Although officials said a successful chemical attack by missile would be difficult to execute, the weapons are considered more threatening than either artillery or aircraft loaded with mustard or nerve agents because of their range, speed and the difficulty of interception.
During the final stages of the eight-year Persian Gulf war, Baghdad's extensive use of mustard and nerve chemicals against Iranian troops and of missiles carrying conventional warheads against Iranian civilian areas were decisive factors in forcing Tehran to accept a U.N. cease-fire in 1988.
But Iraq did not merge missile technology with deadly poison agents, a combination characterized as a "doomsday" scenario, until after the war with Iran. No country has ever used a tactical ballistic missile loaded with the deadly toxins.
In a test monitored by Western intelligence last year, the Iraqi military successfully fired a chemically loaded missile in northwest Iraq, a leading Arab official said. Baghdad subsequently tried to strike a deal with Mauritania, a largely desert country in north Africa, to conduct further tests. But the deal was said to have fallen through in response to Western diplomatic pressure on Mauritania.
Although there have been no intelligence reports so far indicating that Iraq is planning large-scale chemical rocket attacks as part of any military action in the current crisis, U.S. military officials in the gulf already have made contingency plans.
U.S. forces have deployed a large but unspecified number of Patriot surface-to-air missiles in eastern and northern Saudi Arabia to intercept Iraqi missiles.