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Reuters March 12, 2003

Troops' Cumbersome Chemical Suits Could Kill

By Sean Maguire

CAMP MATILDA (Reuters) - Thousands of U.S. and British forces are set to invade Iraq wearing heavy rubber overboots and a padded suit that will ward off chemical attacks but will likely kill some of them from heat exhaustion.

Military commanders have ordered that all troops heading into Iraq must don the charcoal-lined suits, which would protect them from the nerve and blister agents that the United States alleges Iraq still possesses in defiance of United Nations resolutions.

Heavy rubber galoshes complete the mandatory outfit, slowing even the fittest soldiers' advance to a walk.

If there is a "snowstorm"--military jargon for an enemy artillery or mortar attack--gas masks and gloves will also be donned until the all-clear is given. The presumption is that any such fire will contain chemical agents, until proved otherwise.

Inside the apparel soldiers will be so hot their masks will float on the sweat running down their faces.

"I can't think of many times you'll take this gear off between here and Baghdad," said U.S. Marine Sergeant Keith Lattman, who trains on protection from chemical warfare. "You are going to be living, sleeping and eating in these suits."

"It will be a nightmare," said a British soldier on the Marine base, 30 miles south of the Iraqi border, that is home to some of the 250,000 military personnel gathered in the region for a possible attack on President Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

"We are going to lose people to the heat," he added.

PAST ATTACKS

Saddam launched nerve and mustard gas attacks on Kurdish rebels and Iranian troops in the 1980s, but refrained from using the banned weaponry against Western and Arab soldiers that forced his army out of Kuwait in 1991.

Iraq says it has scrapped all its chemical and biological weaponry in accordance with U.N. instructions. Washington says Baghdad is hiding some illicit stocks and is threatening to attack Iraq to find and destroy them.

Western experts doubt Iraq has much ability to launch a major chemical attack, and Marine forces training in the Kuwaiti desert said they did not expect more than a company of troops, around 120 men, to ever need decontamination.

"Chemical warfare is going to kill more Iraqis than Americans given the poor protective gear they have," U.S. Marine Major General James Mattis told reporters.

Marines said they were prepared to fight "dirty" if they ever got "slimed" (contaminated). But normally a unit would withdraw from combat to change its suits if it was hit by chemicals.

HEAT AHEAD

To save their soldiers from the worst effects of prolonged enclosure in suits, military planners are betting on a short war and starting the fight before Gulf temperatures get too hot. Many actions will be launched at night, in cooler conditions.

But warm weather and the high winds that rip across southern Iraq could also be a blessing in disguise, said Sergeant Taryne Williams, because they vaporise and disperse chemical agents.

Officers say their precautions are simply prudent and will not speculate on the likelihood of a chemical attack. But they have factored into their planning certain "trigger points" when they feel Iraq would be most likely to launch one.

"I won't get into whether they are geographic triggers or triggers based on a length of time," said U.S. Marine Corp planner Lieutenant-Colonel George Smith.

But Saddam has already scored a small victory over any invasion army by frightening them into wearing equipment that badly damages their ability to fight, argues retired military scientist Bernard Fine.

"Wearing chemical protective clothing while under enemy fire in a hot ambient temperature is a stress of the very highest order," Fine wrote in a report for military think-tank GlobalSecurity.org.

"Running, with weapon and full field gear, or carrying very heavy loads such as ammunition, for example, under conditions of high ambient temperature...will inevitably result in a very significant number of heat casualties in a short time."


Copyright 2003, Reuters Limited.