WASHINGTON -- If Iraq attempts to fuel rockets that could be used for a germ-warfare attack on Israel, administration officials say, the United States would launch a pre-emptive strike on the missiles.
Both Israel and Iraq have been informed of U.S. plans to destroy the missiles before they are launched, according to administration officials.
The rockets that could carry the biological weapons, which are located at three air bases in western Iraq near the city of Ar Rutbah, have come under intense intelligence observation since officials have concluded that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has developed and stockpiled anthrax and botulism biological weapons.
Defense officials say that the most likely delivery system for the biological weapons would be short-range Soviet-made Scud missiles that Iraq has modified to reach any area in Israel from Western Iraq.
Unlike U.S. battlefield rockets that can be launched instantly with self-contained solid fuel, the Scud rockets use liquid fuel that must be loaded by ground crews.
While the actual fueling would take about two hours, U.S. officials said that there would be a longer warning period that would enable U.S. warplanes in Saudi Arabia and cruise missiles the Persian Gulf to attack the Iraqi bases. Since the Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait, U.S. intelligence has maneuvered five spy satellites to achieve almost constant surveillance of the region.
While experts disagree about the extent of civilian casualties that could be caused by the biological weapons, most agree that anthrax spores could make some Israeli cities uninhabitable for years.
U.S. experts predict that Mr. Hussein would use the long-lived bacterial agents against Israeli cities if the United States attacked Iraqi forces in Kuwait.
They are concerned that such an Iraqi attack might provoke Israel to hit Baghdad with nuclear weapons.
While there has been no public discussion by the Bush administration of the possibility that the Persian Gulf crisis would trigger biological and nuclear warfare, U.S. officials who talked on condition they not be identified acknowledged that the issue was a subject of intense study.
The administration is anxious to minimize the potential Iraq-Israel confrontation as President Bush attempts to maintain Arab unity in the showdown with Mr. Hussein over his invasion of Kuwait.
One administration official says that U.S. concern was reflected in Mr. Bush's decision to provide Israel with the first U.S. battlefield anti-missile system, the Patriot.
The White House announced Oct. 1 that it would send Israel, on an emergency basis, two batteries of Patriots, which are capable of intercepting intermediate-range rocket warheads.
Patriot anti-missile systems also have been deployed around Saudi oil field terminals on the gulf coast, another potential target for Iraqi biological weapons.
By forcing oil industry workers to flee, U.S. officials believe, the biological weapons could lead to a massive shortage of oil worldwide.
While the United States has informed Israel of its plans, administration officials refused to discuss whether more extensive coordination efforts were under way.
Israeli officials, reflecting growing concern over a possible Iraqi missile attack, have complained that the Bush administration has not developed a joint military response.
One Pentagon official acknowledged that Israel already has made elaborate plans for a military strike in case Iraq attempts to fuel the rockets.