Iraqi arsenal complicates plans

Experts say biological, chemical weapons would be among the first targets

May 19, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - As the Pentagon prepares for a possible invasion of Iraq, military planners say the most complicated problem they face is the chance that President Saddam Hussein might use chemical or biological weapons against American forces and their allies.

That prospect has colored planning for almost every aspect of a possible invasion, from training and supplies to the best location and time of year for an assault, military officials said.

The chance of Hussein's firing missiles tipped with chemical or biological warheads at Israel and other U.S. allies has also prompted discussion of destroying his stockpiles or limiting his ability to use them.

None of those theoretical problems is considered grave enough to deter an attack, senior military officials said. But they are more complex than the threats posed by Hussein's conventional weapons because of the destructive nature of chemical and biological weapons and the widespread panic they can induce, the officials said.

The threat of biological or chemical attacks "plays a huge role" in planning about Iraq, said a senior military officer involved in the process, which is under way even though President Bush has not decided that any military action should be taken. "Without question, it's the toughest nut to crack," the officer said.

Though Iraq possessed chemical and probably biological weapons during the Persian Gulf war of 1991, it did not use them, possibly because of American threats of retaliation.

But now that Bush has placed himself behind an effort to change governments in Baghdad, military experts and Pentagon officials say they must assume that Hussein would use every weapon in his arsenal.

"This time, once the tanks start rolling, Saddam knows they won't stop until they reach Baghdad," said Kenneth M. Pollack, the director for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and former director for Persian Gulf affairs in President Bill Clinton's National Security Council. "He has no incentive for restraint."

Unlike Iraq's tanks, artillery and aircraft - which Pentagon planners do not find particularly intimidating - its chemical and biological weapons are less understood and induce more fear.

Those weapons are thought to include sarin and VX gas - which attack the central nervous system, causing paralysis, convulsions and death - as well as anthrax and botulism, said Charles A. Duelfer, the former deputy chairman of the United Nations commission that monitored Iraq's chemical and biological weapons programs until 2000.

To deliver those agents, Iraq has between one dozen and three dozen advanced Scud missiles that can travel up to 375 miles, analysts said. It is also thought to have drones, artillery shells and bombs capable of dispersing chemical and biological agents.

"Whatever he's got now, it's less than what he had in 1991," Duelfer said. "But in 1991 we weren't going to Baghdad. It's different now."

American forces have not been attacked with chemical weapons since World War I, the Pentagon says. Though troops are equipped with chemical suits, trained in the basics of chemical defense and inoculated against certain biotoxins, not even the most seasoned officers have battlefield experience with chemical or biological weapons.

"Just the threat of its use can psychologically help an enemy," said Lt. Col. John Kulifay, chief of doctrine at the Army's chemical school at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. "It causes confusion and takes away your focus."

At the chemical school, trainers try to give soldiers a taste of that fear and confusion. Inside a building nestled in the woods, soldiers wearing masks and full-body chemical suits are put into airtight chambers with enough poisonous nerve gas to kill scores of them. Before entering, trainees have a tendency to strap their masks on so tightly that their heads throb. Some break down in tears.

"They've seen pictures of what Saddam Hussein did to his own people with chemical weapons," said Staff Sgt. Brad Koland, an instructor. "Knowing you'll be in a room with the same kind of agent will make anybody nervous."

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