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Palm Beach Post (Florida) March 27, 2003

Chemicals Likely To Kill Across Lines

By Michael Browning

On the quiet, balmy afternoon of April 22, 1915, near Ypres, in Belgium, during the first World War, a greenish cloud drifted east across No Man's Land, toward the British and French lines, from the German positions.

It was chlorine gas. The deadly cloud wafted on the breeze, engulfing a detachment of French colonial volunteers from Algeria.

"Rolling over the trenches the gas clouds overwhelmed them so swiftly that men collapsed at once," wrote historian Lyn Macdonald in 1915: The Death of Innocence. "Lying retching, choking, gasping for breath at the foot of the deep ditch where the heavy gas settled and clung thickest of all, they suffocated to death in minutes. "

That afternoon a threshold was crossed in warfare. Despite being banned at the Hague International Peace Convention of 1899, poison gas has lurked and seeped through the edges of war throughout the 20th century - and perhaps beyond.

Now, in Iraq, it may reappear, as American and British troops advance toward Baghdad. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Tuesday that U.S. intelligence has picked up signs suggesting the closer ground troops get to Baghdad, the greater the chance they will face chemical weapons.

Asked about reports that Republican Guard forces ringing Baghdad have been given authority to use chemical weapons, Rumsfeld cited "scraps" of intelligence suggesting that the closer the 3rd Infantry gets to the capital, the greater the danger.

Iraq denies it has any chemical or biological weapons. The Bush administration insists it has both and is trying to gain nuclear weapons. Secretary of State Colin Powell cited speculation that "there is a box around Baghdad, that if we penetrate that box," Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein would unleash a chemical attack. "If he did," Powell added, "it would not stop the (U.S.) assault."

U.S. forces are equipped with full-body chemical protection suits and gas masks.

Chemical agents are a dreadful weapon, a weapon of last resort, apt to recoil upon those who use it as the wind changes, apt to linger like a moral stain upon the users, long after the chemical fumes have dissipated.

Mustard gas and phosgene gas were also used in World War I, and American forces suffered severely from them. Fully 27 percent of American casualties in World War I were caused by poison gas.

Poison gas remained in the armory of most advanced nations after the world war ended and occasionally produced spectacular battlefield results. Mussolini's troops used poison gas against the Ethiopians in 1935-36, and at Makale in January 1936 managed to practically annihilate one of the emperor Haile Selassie's finest armies in just four days with it. The Japanese used it against the Chinese at Yichang, in central China, an important city on the Yangtze River in 1941 and managed to stop an advancing Chinese Nationalist army poised to retake the town.

The most deadly chemical agents, nerve gases known as tabun, sarin and soman, were developed by German scientists during World War II - developed, but never used. The gas most used in World War II wasn't employed on the battlefield but in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Maidanek and other extermination camps maintained by the Nazis to annihilate the Jews. Known by its trade-name, Zyklon-B, or "cyclone-B," it was a powdered form of hydrocyanic acid, originally developed as an insecticide.

On June 8, 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced that "any use of gas by any Axis power . . . will immediately be followed by the fullest retaliation upon . . . military objectives throughout the whole extent of such Axis country." Winston Churchill (who had once advocated the use of poison gas upon Iraqi rebels during a revolt in that country in the 1920s) issued a similar warning.

The Germans heeded the warning. By the closing years of the war, having lost aerial supremacy, the Nazi regime shrank from using poison gas for fear of even heavier Allied bombing raids against already beleaguered German cities.

Since World War II, poison gas has rarely been used in combat. In 1988, Iraq's Hussein launched a sarin nerve gas attack against Kurdish rebels in the north of Iraq. Iraqi warplanes dropped three clusters each of four bombs on the village of Birjinni on Aug. 25, 1988. Observers recall seeing a plume of black, then yellowish, smoke, followed by a not-unpleasant odor similar to fertilizer, and a smell like rotten garlic. Shortly afterward, villagers began to have trouble breathing, their eyes watered, their skin blistered and many vomited - and many died.

British scientists visited the site of the bombing after the first Gulf War and found chemical traces of sarin in the soil. The death toll from the gas attacks remains uncertain, but appears to have been in the thousands.

The United States voluntarily disposed of the last of its VX or nerve gas stockpiles on a forlorn little land speck in the middle of the vast Pacific, Johnston Atoll, by the end of November 2000. The gas had to be burned in an incinerator, 875 miles southwest of Hawaii, by a unit known as JACADS, the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System.

The last weapons to be destroyed were 13,000 land mines filled with VX. The island is still being purified.

Delivered by air, against a defenseless people, in a remote area, the gas attack posed little danger of "blow-back" against the attackers. It remains to be seen whether the Iraqi defense forces are willing to risk a gas attack against American and British forces, on a battlefield close to home, with a crippled-to-nonexistent air force, against the risk of having the chemical agent recoil upon themselves.

For that has always been the danger of using gas or other chemical agents on the ground: The possibility that a contrary breeze will send the agent of death back against the one who dispatched it. Chemical agents are very much a double-edged sword, murderous and suicidal at once.


Iraq's deadly chemical cocktail

U.S. military officials say Iraqi Republican Guard units near Baghdad may have chemical weapons in the form of 155mm binary chemical artillery shells containing the toxic chemical sarin or a form of VX nerve gas.

How it works: Two chemicals that are not lethal by themselves mix after the shell has been fired and form deadly gas.

1. Shell fired from conventional cannon

2. Disks between canister break

3. Spinning of shell helps mix chemicals into toxic agent.

4. Fuse sets off burster, spraying shell's contents into air

Chemical mixes with air, settles toward ground. Exposure of people below depends on distance from explosion, humidity and wind direction.

Form in which chemical reaches ground

Main advantages: Safer to handle that artillery shells filled with nerve gas, easier to transport, more likely to be used in large numbers.

Sources: CIA, Modern Warfare, GlobalSecurity.org, FAS.org, CNN

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Copyright 2003, Palm Beach Newspapers, Inc.