WASHINGTON — SHOULD nuclear weapons be used against Iraq? ``Absolutely,'' says Jeffrey Wright, chairman of the Young Americans for Freedom. ``If we dropped a couple of very strategically placed nuclear weapons, the war would be over tomorrow.''
Although many Americans disagree with that view, support for using tactical nuclear weapons to save the lives of American troops is apparently growing.
Rep. Dan Burton (R) of Indiana told the House of Representatives last week that without nuclear arms, ``we are going to see thousands and thousands of [American] casualties.''
Mr. Burton insists: ``If conventional bombing does not work in dislodging Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard, ... we should consider using tactical nuclear weapons ... before we send our young Americans into a meat grinder. To do less would be inhumane.''
However, the prospect of ``nuking Saddam'' - even on the most limited basis - alarms many leaders in Washington, including such conservatives as House Republican whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia.
Use of nuclear weapons could set off ``a series of events that we can't project,'' Mr. Gingrich warns. ``If we establish a pattern out there that it is legitimate to use those kinds of weapons, our children and grandchildren are going to rue the day.''
Recent Gallup polls give a mixed, and somewhat confusing, picture of how the American people view the use of nuclear weapons in the Gulf war.
In early January, a Gallup poll for Newsweek magazine asked whether Americans favored such weapons as a way to ``save the lives of US forces,'' or whether such first-use of tactical nuclear bombs would be ``immoral.''
Public opinion shifts
Gallup found that 24 percent favored using nuclear weapons against Iraq, 72 percent opposed, and 4 percent had no opinion.
However, in late January, after fighting began, Gallup asked simply: ``Do you favor or oppose using tactical nuclear weapons against Iraq if it might save the lives of US troops?''
This time, 45 percent favored using nuclear weapons, 45 percent were opposed, and 10 percent offered no opinion.
David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, doubts that the 45 percent response really means there is a ``popular desire to nuke everybody.''
Rather, he says it reflects the two major goals of Americans in this war: first, to win; second, to do it with the least possible cost in lives and treasure.
Mr. Keene says it is widely recognized that, regardless of the morality issue, the political consequences of pushing the nuclear button are ``very, very high.''
He says ``the public, in its gut, is really saying: `Get the war over with. And don't handcuff yourself when you're fighting it.' It's really symbolism for that, rather than a desire to use nuclear weapons.''
Four reasons not to use
Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa, in a broadcast interview, says there are four reasons to avoid nuking Iraq:
1. There is no significant military advantage. With enough pounding from ``smart'' weapons, the job can get done.
2. Nuclear weapons would risk radioactive fallout on coalition troops and on friendly civilians.
3. The coalition would ``fall apart,'' and there would be anti-Americanism ``the likes of which you've never seen.''
4. Nuclear weapons would proliferate all over the globe.
Critics also argue that Iraq is technically off-limits as a target for nuclear weapons under a 13-year-old US policy because it has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it has never used nuclear weapons, and it possesses no nuclear weapons.
According to news reports, US forces have an estimated 1,000 nuclear weapons in the Gulf region, mostly aboard ships, and about 300 nuclear artillery shells and bombs in Turkey.
If Iraq suddenly used ``weapons of mass destruction,'' such as chemical warheads, against coalition forces, the US response is uncertain. When Defense Secretary Richard Cheney was once asked about the nuclear option, he would say only: ``We don't rule options in or out.''
Congressman Gingrich says the US must avoid becoming the first to use tactical nuclear weapons, or to break the 45-year taboo on dropping nuclear bombs.
``We would not want to live in a world in which we had sent a signal to every country on the planet to get nuclear weapons as fast as you can,'' he says.
``Maintaining a threshhold ... against the use of nuclear weapons is a very rational strategy in the long run, and will save a lot of lives in the long run.''
Nor does Gingrich think that puts large numbers of American lives at risk in this war.
``If you look at the quality of our weapons systems today, we can do an amazing amount of damage with a conventional weapon,'' he says. ``I believe we can beat Iraq decisively if we are patient and willing to use the advantage we have with precision-guided munitions.''