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As troops near Baghdad, apprehension of chemical attack increases

WASHINGTON—Apprehension of a chemical attack has risen as U.S.-led troops close in on Baghdad.

Within 20 miles of the Iraqi capital, troops are within firing range of Republican Guard units who might have artillery and short-range missiles loaded with chemical warheads that can travel up to 12 miles.

U.S. officials had feared that crossing into the "red zone," an area that runs east from Karbala about 50 miles south of Baghdad, would trigger a chemical attack. But none came, raising the question of whether the Iraqi regime will unleash its deadly arsenal in a last desperate effort to cling to power.

"Clearly, as we threaten the core of the regime which Baghdad and Tikrit represent, we believe that the likelihood of them using those weapons goes up. And so the posture of our force is prepared for that," Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal said Wednesday.

But most weapons experts think the Iraqi regime, even when faced with almost certain annihilation, will not resort to chemical weapons. Saddam, who in two short weeks has gone from the "Butcher of Baghdad" to modern-day Arab folk hero, will not risk turning world opinion against him, they say, adding that Iraqi commanders will not obey orders to fire chemical weapons out of fear they will be prosecuted for war crimes.

These experts also say using shells and rockets to target U.S. troops or to contaminate approaches to Baghdad would not be very effective.

"(Chemical weapons) are of limited military utility and carry a very high political and diplomatic cost," said Joseph Cirincione, a weapons proliferation specialist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "They wouldn't stop the advance. They probably wouldn't kill many troops. But they could hurt Saddam's now-flourishing image as an Arab hero, of a man of honor willing to die in his country rather than surrender."

Other military analysts maintain Saddam will use chemical weapons to slow invading forces "once he realizes he has no other real hope."

Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington research organization, fears Saddam will save those weapons to target more vulnerable infantry troops on the streets of Baghdad.

"I do think we have to worry a great deal about this," O'Hanlon said. "To my mind, the admittedly circumstantial case is still a very strong case for Saddam having these weapons."

Their use would bear out the Bush administration's decision to go to war without U.N. backing. President Bush has repeatedly pledged to rid Iraq of "weapons of terror," missing troves of banned agents that Iraq claims to have destroyed.

But coalition forces sweeping the country in search of chemical and biological weapons have found only hints such an arsenal may exist—chemical protection suits, decontamination equipment, supplies of a nerve gas antidote. Senior U.S. officials admit they are surprised that American, British and Australian commandos and weapons hunters acting on intelligence tips have not found a trace of the weapons themselves.

Iraq has insisted it has no weapons of mass destruction. "We hear from some countries ... that if you even have some of these agents, do not use them, because that would harm your cause. I tell them all that you know well that Iraq has no such weapons," Iraq Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan said Tuesday.

Even if U.S. officials have overestimated the number of chemical weapons Saddam has stockpiled, Saddam has the scientists, materials and technical know-how needed to start up production again quickly, experts say.

Despite years of U.N. inspections, estimates of the quantities of chemical agents are based on what Iraq was known to have before the 1991 Gulf War. Iraq produced large amounts of mustard gas and four different nerve agents, tabun, sarin, cyclosarin and VX, said Jonathan B. Tucker, a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace and a former U.N. weapons inspector.

Iraq used 3,000 tons of mustard gas and tabun against Iranian troops and other chemical weapons against Kurdish villages during the Anfal campaign in 1988, Tucker said.

Exposure to mustard gas is rarely fatal but can cause painful burns and blisters on the skin. Small quantities of nerve agents, which pose the greatest threat to U.S. troops, can kill in minutes.

Sarin, which can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin, is one of the most feared but also the most volatile of the nerve agents. A cloud of sarin can dissipate after several minutes or hours depending on wind and temperature, Tucker said.

VX, which has the consistency of motor oil and sticks to vehicles and other surfaces, is the most persistent nerve agent, remaining toxic for up to three weeks, Tucker said. It is also one of the most potent: Just 10 milligrams of VX—basically a large drop—on the skin can kill a man, he said.

"Throughout the U.N. weapons inspections process, Iraq failed to provide physical or documentary evidence to support its claim to have destroyed its entire remaining stock of chemical weapons," Tucker said. "It is therefore likely that Iraq retains an arsenal of chemical weapons, although the types and quantities of agent and their means of delivery are uncertain."

Most likely, Iraq would fire chemically laden artillery shells or rockets because the U.S.-led coalition dominates the skies. Iraq also may have booby-trapped approaches to Baghdad with drums of chemical agents, said Jon Wolfsthal, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a research institution in Washington.

U.S. troops have protective gear, including carbon-laced suits, although those must be replaced within 24 hours of contamination. They also carry antidotes to nerve agents and travel in sealed tanks and armored vehicles equipped with air filters.

Knight Ridder reporters on the front lines with some of the lead military units say forces have donned protective suits and keep other protective gear close at hand, but rarely have been ordered to put on the boots and gas masks that would signal greater danger of a chemical attack.

But Iraqi civilians have no such protection. Use of the weapons in populated areas could create a humanitarian disaster of such a magnitude that the resulting chaos would substantially hinder the advance of U.S. forces, Tucker said.

"We need to be prepared however unlikely these events might seem," he said. "We have to make sure we have enough antidote for the troops and civilians."


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