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U.S. forces suit up for possible chemical, biological attack

CAMP COMMANDO, Kuwait—In Marine Cpl. Jim Armstrong's worst nightmare, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein doesn't use chemical and biological weapons until American forces are at the gates to Baghdad.

"If I have to wear this suit from here to Baghdad I'll be very angry," Armstrong said Saturday as 60,000 Marines in Kuwait tried on their hot and bulky chem/bio protective suits for the first time since arriving.

The drill marked a significant step in war preparations by U.S. ground forces in Kuwait, costing up to $13 million because the $211 suits are good for only 120 days after they are removed from their vacuum-sealed bags.

From 8 a.m. to noon Marines in protective suits shaved, ate breakfast, cleaned their rifles, maintained their equipment and worked in their offices, with gas masks strapped to their waists or within reach.

"Gettin' ready, gettin' ready," said one Marine in line for a shower. "Hope this means we're going north soon, man."

But Armstrong's concern reflected a more critical question facing U.S. war planners: Just when might Saddam first use any weapons of mass destruction, at the beginning of the war or toward the end?

"He's already told the world he doesn't have them, so if he uses them it's going to be bad for him," said Master Gunnery Sgt. James Forward, head of nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) warfare defenses for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (IMEF).

"On the other hand, if he doesn't use it he might lose his regime," Forward told a group of U.S. journalists at Camp Commando, headquarters for Gen. James T. Conway, who commands all Marine forces in the Persian Gulf.

If Saddam does use chemical or biological weapons, where might he use them? Would he hit Basra, the southern city likely to be among the first American targets? Or would he wait until U.S. troops threaten Tikrit, his birthplace and tribal power base? Or until Americans surround Baghdad?

The Marines believe they know, maybe.

"There's probably a couple of key places where he could use them," Forward said, adding that he coordinates his preparations with IMEF's intelligence branch but declining comment on just what those places might be.

Whenever he may use them, U.S. NBC experts say, Saddam's chemical and biological weapons may be disruptive, but not destructive.

"If we have confidence in our gear and we react like we've been trained to react it will be nothing more than a nuisance and we'll fight our way through it," said a senior Marine Corps expert in NBC warfare.

American troops will no doubt be encumbered by the jacket-and-pants protective suits, which use a layer of carbon spheres to filter out toxins.

Worn over a flak jacket on an 80-degree day, the suit would raise the temperature inside to 95, said Forward.

Col. John Coleman, IMEF's chief of staff, said he expected temperatures in southern Iraq would hit 120 in the shade and 140 in the sun within six weeks.

"These things are just hot and bulky. You feel like Gumby," said Armstrong, 21, a Los Angeles native. "I don't know which way I would rather die, choking on nerve gas or dropping from heat exhaustion."

But the same heat that would turn the suits into virtual ovens would also help to more quickly neutralize chemical warfare agents such as VX nerve gas and blister agents such as Mustard gas.

"The trade off is that it is not going to be as persistent as in a cooler environment," Forward said, adding that he had confidence in the suits and gas masks despite media reports questioning their effectiveness.

The suits are designed to remain effective for more than 24 hours in a contaminated environment, 45 days of wear in clean environments, 120 days after their air-tight bags are opened and more than 12 years on the shelf.

That's much better than the suits used in the Gulf War in 1991, which weighed almost twice as much, lasted only eight hours in contamination and left wearers covered in black soot from their charcoal liners.

Forward said he has enough stocks to dole out three suits to each Marine in Kuwait. But he acknowledged that many of the suits are not in the preferred desert camouflage colors but rather in the green woodland pattern.

At a briefing with Conway's staff during the exercise Saturday, Forward was the only one wearing a desert pattern suit, he said. "I was kind of wondering what they thought," he joked.


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