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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

Scripps Howard News Service March 7, 2003

Securing Iraqi weapons could be a real problem for U.S.

By Joan Lowy

- The impetus for war with Iraq is to deprive the rogue nation of its weapons of mass destruction, but finding, securing and disposing them is an uncertain prospect at best, according to defense experts.

Iraq says it no longer has chemical or biological weapons, but the United States believes Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein still maintains an extensive hidden arsenal.

The first priority should war begin will be to destroy any chemical or biological materials in the hands of Iraqi military units, said retired Brig. Gen. John Reppert, executive director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.

"The last thing we want is the weapons mounted and deployed during combat, so we will make every effort we can to eliminate those first," Reppert said.

Still, many defense experts presume that Saddam will use chemical weapons against U.S. forces or against Israel as soon as hostilities begin.

"I am assuming he will have expended a significant fraction of his chemical stockpiles on the first day of the war," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense think tank. "He can't take them with him. They won't do him any good after he's dead."

The Iraqi army used chemical weapons extensively during an eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s, killing tens of thousands of Iranians, and again in 1988 against ethnic Kurds in northern Iraq, killing more than 5,000 civilians in a single assault. The U.S. Army has special units trained to find and secure chemical and biological weapons, as do some other coalition forces. Most, if not all, troops have been briefed on what chemical or biological weapons or stockpiles look like and what to do if they encounter something suspicious.

In cases where coalition forces find caches of chemical or biological weapons, they will likely be destroyed by targeted air strikes employing special explosives.

In at least one instance during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, U.S. troops - unaware that chemical weapons were present - were inadvertently exposed to chemical vapors while destroying a military facility.

But some kinds of explosives burn so hot that they prevent the escape of poisonous gas or deadly germs. Fuel air explosives, for example, release an aerosol or fine powder, which then ignites, creating a large fireball that incinerates all material in the vicinity.

Thermobaric explosives were used in Afghanistan to destroy underground bunkers. The explosive force smashes everything in the bunker, followed by a heat flash that incinerates all the material inside.

"You are not going to have local platoons of infantry throw grenades into a place and merrily watch it burn," said Dan Goure, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a defense think tank. "It will be done by specialists."

However, war is chaotic and there is always the possibility that retreating Iraqi forces may leave chemical or biological weapons simply lying around.

"You not only have the problem of finding the stuff, you have the problem of inadvertently running over it," Goure said. "A shell lying by the side of the road, to put it bluntly."

Through intelligence sources, U.S. and other coalition forces will have a very good idea before the war starts of where they should look for chemical, biological or nuclear weapons or materials, Goure said. Other experts, however, said it's unlikely the United States knows where stockpiles are hidden.

"If the United States knew where Iraq's chemical stockpile was currently located, why didn't we send the U.N. inspectors there? That would have convinced the French. It would have been a smoking gun," Pike said.

"Iraq's chemical weapons stockpile probably consists of hundreds of tons of agent, not thousands of tons," Pike said. "Hundreds of tons of agent is something you can store in a small warehouse."

U.S. officials have said that Iraq made several attempts to obtain nuclear material from other countries, although it's not known whether it was successful. If Iraq has weapons-grade nuclear material, the amount would probably be small enough to fit into a lead-lined footlocker, defense experts said.

Yet, despite its relatively small size, nuclear material would probably be the easiest of the three to find because of its radiological signature, experts said.

Biological weapons are a question mark because small amounts of such arms can be hidden and moved around with relative ease. Assuming coalition forces win control of Iraq, a high priority will be tracking down Iraqi scientists and questioning them about where weapons and material are cached. It's likely that scientists will be offered amnesty in exchange for cooperation and perhaps even paid for information.

" 'Tell us where the Scuds are and earn $1,000.' Nothing wrong with that," Goure said.

One of the key questions coalition forces will be asking Iraqi scientists is whether Iraq passed any dangerous germs like anthrax, Ebola, plague or smallpox to terrorists.

"It's going to be very desirable to understand very quickly whether Saddam Hussein's revenge includes having provided some terrorist group with a lifetime supply of smallpox," Pike said.

On the Net:

Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs - http://bcsia.ksg.harvard.edu/

Copyright 2003, Scripps Howard News Service