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Last Updated

20 Mar 2003

Source: Wall Street Journal, March 20, 2003


Intelligence Suggests Hussein Allowed Chemical-Weapon Use


Intelligence reports suggest Saddam Hussein already has given his field-level commanders clearance to launch chemical and biological weapons, Pentagon officials say. Those reports have led defense officials to conclude there is a high probability the U.S. military will face them on the battlefield.

It is impossible to predict if or when these commanders might fire the weapons. In the prior Gulf War, the Iraqi military loaded 75 Scud warheads, hundreds of aerial bombs and thousands of rockets and artillery shells with chemical and biological agents. Mr. Hussein told commanders to pull the trigger if U.S. troops appeared to move on Baghdad. The commanders never appeared to have launched such weapons.

It is unclear precisely what orders field commanders have been given this time. One school of thought suggests that Mr. Hussein, realizing he will lose any international support the moment he unleashes his arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, would hold back using the weapons until his demise is all but certain.

"Our best assessment is that Saddam will use them only when he realizes it's a lost cause -- when U.S. troops are moving on Baghdad," one defense-intelligence official said. These officials argue that the weapons tend not to be very effective on the battlefield, particularly in a dry, windy desert where they dissipate quickly.

Another school of thought holds that Mr. Hussein knows he is doomed and will use his chemical and biological weapons early in an effort to bring Israel into the war. The Israelis have said they would strike back if Iraq launches a chemical or biological attack, which in turn could alienate U.S. Arab allies.

To head off that possibility, the Pentagon has sent large numbers of special-operations commandos as well as high-tech surveillance to western Iraq to hunt down and destroy mobile Scud launchers within range of Israel. The U.S. also has been conducting a large-scale psychological-operations campaign to warn Iraqi officers that they will be tried for war crimes if they follow orders and launch a biological- or chemical-weapons attack.

The United Nations estimates that Mr. Hussein has as much as 200 tons of deadly VX nerve agent, which is so lethal that even a small drop on the skin can quickly lead to death. In addition, he likely has a massive store of mustard gas, which isn't as lethal, but still potentially deadly. Less is known about his biological-weapons program, which is thought to include potentially huge stores of anthrax, botulinum toxin and ricin.

But the Iraqi dictator's ability to deliver those weapons on the battlefield and in neighboring countries is limited. The Iraqis likely have only a couple of dozen long-range Scud missiles, capable of hitting Israel, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. These missiles, which can travel distances of about 400 miles, are woefully inaccurate and can carry only a relatively small payload of deadly agents.

In addition to his Scuds, Pentagon planners believe Mr. Hussein possesses hundreds of specially modified short-range rockets and artillery shells that can travel as much as 60 miles. Each shell, however, can't carry much agent. And it is unlikely Mr. Hussein will be able to get off many shots before they are destroyed by U.S. planes. Finally, the Iraqi leader has assembled a fleet of unmanned planes capable of spraying large amounts of agent, but which are slow moving and would make easy targets.

Pentagon officials say their best bet for stopping a chemical or biological attack is to destroy Iraqi Scud launchers, which are heavy trucks with missiles mounted on their backs. In the first Gulf War, the U.S. didn't destroy a single launcher, however, as their mobility made them hard to find.

Just as it did in that conflict, the Pentagon has sent large teams of special-operations commandos into western Iraq, where the launchers need to be located to be within range of Israel. In addition, the Pentagon has deployed new unmanned surveillance planes capable of loitering over a piece of ground for dozens of hours at a time and can beam live images to commanders, fighter pilots and special-operations soldiers on the ground.

Another major concern worrying war planners is that Mr. Hussein will send a small group of commandos to carry out a chemical or biological attack using a crop duster, a truck or a boat. Potential targets include U.S. bases in the Middle East, major Middle Eastern or Israeli cities and possibly the U.S.

Such an attack would be difficult to pull off. If wind and temperature conditions weren't exactly right, the cloud of chemical or biological agent might blow harmlessly out to sea or disappear into the upper atmosphere. Still, if the commandos were to strike a crowded base or city, thousands could die. To guard against this possibility, the Pentagon has quietly deployed large numbers of new chemical detectors, capable of detecting an agent in seconds, and biological detectors that can identify an agent in about 45 minutes, to U.S. bases abroad as well as the Pentagon and other potential targets in Washington. the Pentagon has called up hundreds of thousands of reservists to guard U.S. bases at home and in Europe.

Paradoxically, commanders are least worried about chemical and biological attacks against front-line ground troops pushing toward Baghdad. Because these troops will be fairly dispersed, they aren't a good target for chemical or biological weapons.