WASHINGTON -- Bush administration officials have drawn up plans to use air strikes against any Iraqi military unit that uses poison gas on rebels battling Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, senior administration officials said yesterday.
The military planning followed the receipt in Washington of U.S. and allied intelligence reports stating that Iraq's high command in Baghdad had issued orders to its military commanders in two Shiite holy cities, Najaf and Karbala, to use chemical weapons to put down uprisings in those cities, administration and allied officials said.
One official familiar with administration planning said yesterday, "If he uses gas, we are right there in the country, and I don't think morally we could let him do it and not do anything about it."
The Iraqis deny any intention of using chemical weapons, but U.S. officials noted Mr. Hussein has named a new interior minister, Ali Hassan Majid, who is accused by human rights groups of overseeing chemical gas attacks on Kurds in March 1988.
The intelligence reports were based on intercepted communications between the Iraqi high command and field commanders, officials said. But no subsequent intelligence monitoring has indicated that such weapons have been used so far, despite claims from Iraqi opposition groups that their forces have suffered mustard gas attacks.
One senior administration official said the intercepted Iraqi communication was very precise in its reference to chemical agents and, therefore, immediately set off alarms in Washington.
"We got an intercept on Thursday indicating that they were going to drop a gas bomb on a specific place at a specific time," the official said.
Another official from an allied government said the intercepted communication was an instruction from the military high command in Baghdad to field commanders who were being urged to "use the liquids" because "time is not on our side."
One U.S. official said there were also indications that the Iranian government, which supports the Shiite-based opposition in Iraq, had also learned of Iraqi plans to use chemical weapons and that this might explain the call for Mr. Hussein's resignation issued Friday by Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Administration officials did not specifically state what actions American forces might take if a chemical attack against Iraqi civilians was detected, and no final decision had been made on the military options.
But they said the main recommendation drawn up at meetings held Friday by the National Security Council to discuss the situation was for resuming air strikes rather than renewed ground attacks from U.S. forces in Iraq.
"The ground option is definitely precluded," the official said. "That leads into the destruction of Iraq, and we've said that won't happen. It would mean a longer ground war with the risk of backlash and casualties. An air strike was the most likely option."