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Czech teams prepare to use world's best biohazard equipment

KUWAIT—It's called the Combined Joint Task Force for Consequence Management, a long and ambiguous name for a unit that is girding for a nuclear, chemical or biological attack against American troops or allies.

"Our main concern now is terrorism, to reduce the consequence of weapons of mass destruction," said Lt. Col. Ivo Musil, part of a 400-man Czech army battalion trained to detect such attacks and decontaminate victims.

If President Bush orders a U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Czechs could be on the front lines, sniffing the air with their state-of-the-art detection vehicles and washing down allied troops and vehicles.

Musil declined to comment on such a possibility. "We do not speculate on operations," he said during an exhibition of his unit's nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) capabilities for Kuwaiti military officials.

His government in Prague has been clearer, telling Washington that its former communist and now NATO military would help in a war to disarm Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Musil's unit makes up the bulk of the consequence management force, rounded out by U.S. commanders and German NBC units—despite the fact that the German government remains staunchly opposed to war with Iraq.

Czech troops served in the 1991 Gulf War to drive Iraq out of Kuwait and in the Balkans wars and now operate a field hospital in Kabul in support of the U.S.-led coalition's troops in Afghanistan.

Czech and German troops are world leaders in detecting chemical and biological attacks because they faced one another across the Iron Curtain for decades. "In the Cold War, we were the front lines the most endangered countries," said Musil.

They were called to Kuwait early last year to help protect local troops and civilians and foreign soldiers stationed here from NBC attacks by terrorists or Iraqi forces. Germany's NBC troops are not expected to follow a war into Iraq.

The Czechs have had no alarms thus far, so they spend most of their time training, some in canary-yellow "moon suits" with scuba-like air supplies designed for highly dangerous environments, others in olive-green suits and gas masks used by decontamination workers.

Using an odd combination of domestically developed, Soviet-era and Western equipment, they look for nerve agents such as sarin and VX, mustard gas and Lewisite and biological agents such as anthrax and smallpox.

If it comes to war, they will also look for a bland-sounding danger, TIX, or Toxic Industrial Chemicals, which Iraqi troops may use in booby traps. U.S. military field detectors cannot sense TIX, but the Czech equipment can.

Their detection equipment is mounted on Soviet-designed armored vehicles and British-made Land Rovers.

A three-tent field decontamination station that can be deployed in 40 minutes is carried aboard Czech-made trucks.

All the vehicles are airtight and equipped with air filters as well as compressed air tanks in case of emergencies. One eight-ton truck packs a fully equipped biological laboratory to test unusual materials.

Czech units in the Gulf War reported the presence of VX near one U.S. position, but Pentagon officials later said it was probably a false alarm caused by smoke from burning Kuwaiti oil fields. Some Gulf War veterans plagued by mysterious ailments that some of them suspect were caused by exposure to toxic substances aren't so sure.

"I am convinced our VX measurements were correct," said Musil, who joined the then-Czechoslovakian army in 1980.

As giant U.S. Air Force C-5 cargo planes landed on a nearby runway with supplies for American troops, Musil said he didn't find it strange to be working alongside his former Cold War nemesis.

"It's a profession," he said with a shrug before launching on a more personal and probably more telling tale.

His father, he said, was a Communist Party member in the Moravian town of Brno until he joined the 1968 rebellion against Soviet military occupation that came to be known as the Prague Spring.

"He collected signatures against the occupation, so my father was persecuted, thrown out of the Communist Party," Musil recalled. As the son of a political outcast, he added, "my only opportunity for an education was the army."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): nbcdetection