WASHINGTON -- Acting on CIA warnings that Iraq has developed biological weapons, the Pentagon is planning to begin vaccinating U.S. military personnel in the Persian Gulf, military officials said yesterday.
A Defense Department spokesman refused to comment yesterday on the plans. But senior administration officials said the Pentagon had recommended proceeding with the inoculation program.
The Pentagon plan is part of a broad effort to improve defenses against biological weapons, including the use of masks and protective garments.
Iraq has used chemical weapons against some rebellious Kurds in its own country and against Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. But President Saddam Hussein has repeatedly denied that Iraq has biological weapons.
In September, CIA Director William H. Webster said that "Iraq has a sizable stockpile of chemical and biological weapons." Government officials said Mr. Webster was reacting to intelligence reports that Iraq would be able to deliver significant quantities of biological agents on the battlefield by early next year.
Administration officials describe the vaccination plan as a precaution in light of these intelligence findings and deny that they are trying to stir new alarm about Iraq's military capabilities.
Administration officials have been worried that the vaccination effort could disturb the Saudis, other members of the anti-Iraq coalition and some U.S. troops. This is because the United States does not now have enough vaccine to inoculate all U.S. personnel, let alone all friendly troops and Saudi citizens.
It is unclear how many personnel will be vaccinated under the program, but officials said the Pentagon planned to first inoculate those most likely to be threatened by biological weapons, such as anthrax.
Biological weapons are based on living agents such as viruses and bacteria. They can be used to spread diseases such as typhoid, cholera and anthrax.
Vaccines for the biological agents considered most likely to be employed by Iraq would be produced in much the same way as smallpox vaccines, using weakened or dead bacteria to stimulate the production of antibodies by immune systems.
An administration official said that the Pentagon planned to begin the inoculations "in a matter of weeks" and that an effort was being made to rapidly expand the production of vaccines.
But the official declined to say exactly how many would initially be inoculated, when the United States would have enough vaccine to protect all personnel, what vaccines were being developed or where they were being manufactured.
Even though supplies of vaccines are limited, administration officials defended the Pentagon plan, saying it is better to vaccinate some personnel than not to vaccinate any. And they said that those who were not vaccinated could be given some protection by masks and special clothing.
They also said that a portion of the vaccine was being reserved for use after a possible biological weapons attack as an antidote and that antibiotics also were available.
Some officials say Iraq might be unwilling to use biological weapons because it is difficult for an attacker to control biological agents and prevent them from infecting his own troops. Also, the United States has said that it would unleash devastating retaliation if Iraq employed chemical or biological weapons.