RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- U.S. front-line combat troops in Saudi Arabia are being told in intelligence briefings that Iraq is likely to use its chemical weapons to slow a U.S. ground offensive into Kuwait.
These warnings go beyond what the military has said in the past and apparently reflect a conclusion that Iraq would turn to poison gas in an effort to thwart the stronger U.S. and other forces -- much as it did to fend off Iranian human-wave attacks during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war.
"From the information they give me, I expect it to happen," said Army Pfc. Andrew Garrett, 20, of Joplin, Mo., an infantry specialist in chemical decontamination.
A military intelligence officer, during a news briefing, seemed to confirm what some soldiers have said they were told in the field.
"The experience Iraqi forces gained in using chemical weapons against Iran would likely be applied against attacking . . . forces," said Air Force Lt. Col. Tom Coury, who handles intelligence for the U.S. Central Command in Saudi Arabia.
He said he used the word "likely" based on both the public threats from Baghdad and intelligence information he would not disclose.
In the past, U.S. military officials have talked about Iraq's potential use of chemical weapons but avoided comments about the likelihood of it.
While U.S. forces say they are confident they can avoid large-scale casualties from poison gas, chemical warfare would be demoralizing and would hamper a ground advance against entrenched Iraqi forces.
It would require U.S. troops to operate in protective gear, which is hot and cumbersome, and to employ complex decontamination procedures that would divert efforts from the ground offensive. It would require extensive precautions to avoid having injured soldiers contaminate medical facilities.
"Iraq would use it as a harassment," said Private Garrett.
Soldiers have been practicing with special detection equipment that would direct troops around contaminated areas. They also have been practicing chemical weapons defensive measures since they first arrived in Saudi Arabia because of Iraq's past use of mustard gas and nerve agents against the Iranians.
The troops are required to carry gas masks at all times and to keep protective suits nearby, precautions the United States hopes would deter Iraqi use of the chemicals.
Iraq could fire at front-line forces with chemically loaded bombs, rockets, mortars and artillery, according to the U.S. military. There is debate about Iraq's ability to put a chemical warhead on its Scud surface-to-surface missiles, which have the range to hit major military support bases and cities in eastern Saudi Arabia.
In the military briefing yesterday, officials said there were now about 300,000 U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf region, with more arriving from the United States and Germany. This total includes 230,000 ground troops, 35,000 on ships in the region and 35,000 on air bases.