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Orlando Sentinel (Florida) March 26, 2003

Fears Grow As Iraqis Draw 'Red Line' In Sand

By Joe Newman, Sentinel Staff Writer

With U.S.-led troops poised for a climactic assault on Baghdad, fears that Saddam Hussein might launch chemical and biological weapons grew Tuesday, fed by reports an Iraqi attack would begin when coalition forces cross a "red line" drawn around the capital.

CBS, NBC and CNN all quoted unidentified intelligence sources who said Iraq's elite Republican Guard had orders to attack with chemical weapons when U.S. ground troops crossed a line roughly between Karbala and Al Kut.

Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld both cited the intelligence reports in Tuesday interviews.

Powell acknowledged speculation that "there is a box around Baghdad, that if we penetrate that box," Saddam would unleash a chemical attack.

Rumsfeld referred to "scraps" of intelligence. He did not offer details because "who knows how accurate they are," he said.

Unlike the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Iraq held back its lethal nerve gas, Saddam knows this time the U.S.-led coalition is unlikely to stop until he is killed or removed from power.

Saddam has every reason to use his chemical and biological weapons, said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a defense think tank.

"I reason he's going to fire off every last drop of it," Pike said. "They aren't going to do him any good after he's dead; he can't take them with him."

While advancing coalition troops have not found any stores of chemical or biological weapons, they have captured Iraqis carrying gas masks and found masks and chemical suits abandoned in Iraqi bunkers.

All that adds to the fear that Saddam's proclaimed "last great battle" in Baghdad might be one using weapons of mass destruction.

The possibility he might use that arsenal to "defend" Baghdad, however, flies in the face of military wisdom and, if true, might signal that Saddam has no hope of surviving the war, some defense analysts say.

In urban warfare, where sides are at close quarters, using missiles or artillery shells loaded with chemical or biological agents can easily backfire if the wind changes directions. In the case of anthrax, its spores of bacteria could leave Baghdad contaminated for years.

Those most at risk would be Baghdad's 5 million civilian residents. U.S. and British troops are equipped with gas masks and protective gear. Soldiers also are provided medical packs that contain nerve-gas antidotes that can be self-administered. Many also received vaccinations for smallpox and anthrax.

ONLY GOAL IS SURVIVAL

Not everyone thinks Saddam will resort to chemical or biological weapons.

Saddam has no hope of winning a war against the United States, so his only goal will be survival, said William Arkin, a former Army intelligence officer who is now a defense analyst for NBC. He can't do that by using chemical and biological weapons and proving to the world community that the war was justified, he said.

While he has used chemical weapons before, it was either against a comparable enemy or defenseless villagers.

"The Iraqis are rational actors. When they can get away with murder, they will," Arkin said.

The Iraqi regime first used chemical weapons during its eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s. It resorted to poison gas to counter Iran's human wave of infantry attacks, according to a 1990 U.S. Navy briefing on the Iran-Iraq war.

Early in the war, Iraq used CS, which is a nonlethal tear gas, and mustard gas, which can cause severe blisters, lung damage, blindness -- and sometimes death.

By the end of the war, Iraq had developed and employed deadlier gases that attack the nervous system. Those nerve agents, such as sarin, tabun and VX, can kill within 15 minutes of contact or inhalation.

KURDS LIKELY GASSED

There's better proof that bombs filled with sarin were dropped on Kurdish villagers in northern Iraq in 1988.

A three-member team from the Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights interviewed Kurdish refugees who fled into Turkey after the attacks, which killed thousands of Iraqi Kurds.

The refugees reported seeing low-flying planes sweep across the sky. The planes dropped bombs that exploded with a muffled sound, producing a thick, yellowish gas that smelled strongly of garlic, according to the group's report.

One 8-year-old girl from the village of Ekmaka watched from a distance as her parents and brother dropped dead.

"I looked at their skin, and it was black, and they weren't moving," the girl said. She, like other refugees, said she suffered from blurry vision, blisters and difficulty breathing.

In 1992, another team of scientists from human-rights groups entered Iraq and took soil samples from bomb craters near a Kurdish village. An analysis of the soil found traces of both mustard gas and sarin, said Susannah Sirkin, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights.

Baghdad's likely chemical options include mustard gas as well as sarin, tabun and VX, according to CIA reports quoted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

The CIA estimates Iraq has as much as 550 tons of chemical agents stockpiled. Iraq also has not accounted for 15,000 artillery rockets that could be used for delivering nerve agents nor 550 artillery shells filled with sulfur mustard, the center wrote in a January report.

MANY METHODS OF DELIVERY

Against U.S. troops, Iraqi forces could deliver chemical and biological weapons with artillery shells and its array of missiles. It also could drop bombs from planes or use airborne spray machines, though U.S. dominance of the skies makes that option less likely. There's also debate as to whether Iraq has developed a pilotless drone aircraft or mobile labs capable of delivering chemical and biological weapons.

But Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said anyone who tries to predict what Iraq's next move will be is just speculating unless they have "hard data."

"The truth of the matter is, all of these scenarios are possible," he said. "If you don't have the facts, you aren't making anything but guesses."

GRAPHIC: BOX: Saddam's chemical and biological arsenal; DIAGRAM: Preparing for unconvential weapons


Copyright 2003, Sentinel Communications Co.