Coalition destroyed key posts early on

Commandos tried to avert use of chemical weapons

War in Iraq

March 23, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- In the opening hours of the war against Iraq, American and Australian forces flew deep into the country and seized or destroyed specific command posts to prevent officers there from ordering the use of chemical and biological weapons, said officials with the coalition forces.

The outposts were selected for urgent, risky attacks because intelligence agencies had reported that the field commanders had operational control of those weapons and might have been given authority by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to use them even if he were killed or could no longer communicate his orders.

Officials stressed that no chemical or biological weapons were stored at the command centers that have been attacked. The Iraqis have denied having such weapons.

Officials who described the covert operations said they could not reveal how the targets were chosen, where the outposts were or how many of them there were because those details remain sensitive while the invasion of Iraq is under way.

The use of Special Operations forces in the attacks, though, is a sure sign that coalition commanders viewed the targets as unusually significant, not the ordinary kind of outpost that might be easily destroyed by bombing.

In one mission, Australian commandos were discovered by the Iraqis and fought a skirmish that injured or killed more than 10 Iraqis, the officials said.

"We don't know where Saddam is or whether he's able to communicate," said one senior official with detailed knowledge of the covert operation. "But we know we got to these command centers before anyone there had time to do anything."

Australia's commander in the region, Brig. Gen. Maurie McNarn, mentioned the operation by Australian Special Air Service commandos to reporters in Qatar on Friday.

Senior military officials said that bombs and missiles fired by coalition aircraft had hit such targets as missile launchers and artillery batteries thought to be capable of firing chemical weapons, along with the communications equipment at those locations.

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