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Last Updated

21 Mar 2003

Source: New York Times, March 21, 2003

Biological and Chemical Weapons Would Slow but Not Stop Troops


American and British soldiers ready to invade Iraq know they may face not just bullets but also the chemical and biological agents that Iraq is suspected of having in its arsenal. Prepared troops, however, can be well protected against such threats, experts say.

Saddam Hussein made extensive use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war, causing an estimated 100,000 casualties among Iranian troops. He also used chemicals in 1987 and 1988 in a campaign against Iraqi Kurds, attacking hundreds of villages and the town of Halabja, where some 5,000 people died.

In these attacks, his army is believed to have used chemicals such as mustard gas, a blistering agent, and sarin, which attacks the nerve centers. Such agents are terrifying and deadly to civilians and unprepared troops. But against well-equipped armies, their main effect is to force soldiers to wear protective gear. That slows them down, especially in hot weather, but little more.

Iraq's ability to wage chemical and biological warfare against the American and British forces depends both on the agents it may have prepared and on the available means of delivering them. Iraq is thought to possess sarin and another nerve agent, VX, as well as large quantities of mustard gas. On the biological side it has had anthrax, botulinum toxin and aflatoxin, according to reports by United Nations inspectors.

The means for delivering significant quantities of chemical weapons against American troops appear to be limited, said Dr. Elisa D. Harris, an expert on chemical and biological warfare who worked on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.

Scud missiles can be shot down, and a helicopter or plane has little chance of getting anywhere near American and British troops. Chemicals can be delivered in artillery shells, but their range is only two miles or so, and large numbers must be fired to deliver a lethal quantity of chemicals to the battlefield.

"It's hard for me to imagine they could carry out a large-scale artillery barrage because we would knock them out before they could be used,'' said Dr. Harris, who is now at the University of Maryland.

Against a chemical or biological attack, the first line of defense is simply moving out of the area or upwind. Vehicles like the M1A1 tank and the Bradley fighting vehicle are pressurized, denying entry to chemical and biological agents.

Even if a chemical or biological agent is delivered, American troops are equipped with an elaborate set of protective garments, including boots, gloves and a helmet. These are used in various combinations, ranked in levels from zero through 4 according to the severity of the threat.

"We have excellent detectors which can give troops enough warning to get into full protective gear,'' Dr. Harris said. The equipment - called MOPP, for mission-oriented protective posture - prevents chemical agents like mustard gas from harming the skin and protects the wearer from inhaling both chemicals and biological agents.

A special filter attached to the mask contains activated charcoal with a metal catalyst that breaks down and absorbs all four categories of chemical weapons, said Dr. C. Gary Hurst, chief of the unit that trains military doctors at the Army Medical Research Institute for Chemical Defense.

The mask is hard to wear but effective. "It makes everything much more difficult,'' Dr. Hurst said. ``You can drink water through a tube, but it's not fun.''

In case troops are exposed to a nerve agent, they carry seven autoinjectors that include the antidote atropine and diazepam, an anti-seizure medicine.

An additional defense against biological weapons is vaccination. American troops are vaccinated against anthrax; some have also had smallpox vaccinations. They also carry an antitoxin for use against botulinum toxin.

Although the chemical sensors used in the field are effective, less is known about the adequacy of sensors for detecting a biological attack. "We will be hard-pressed to know real time if biological agents are deployed,'' Dr. Harris said. "We may only know people have been exposed after they begin to become ill. If Iraq finds some way to deploy biological agents effectively, we may have a real problem on our hands.''

Biological agents are more fragile than chemicals and harder to disperse. Though Iraq is known to have developed bombs for dropping chemicals from planes, it is not certain that it has techniques for dispersing biological agents effectively.

But experts say that neither chemical nor biological weapons are expected to be as effective against American and British troops as traditional ones.

"Most military experts will tell you they are ineffective battlefield technologies,'' Dr. David Heyman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said of chemical and biological weapons. "My guess is that if the Iraqis use chemical or biological weapons, it will be to create fear and slow down an attack.''