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Poison Gas in the Gulf

If Iraq uses chemical weapons, should the US respond in kind? If not, Saddam will have an advantage. If it does, a global ban could be set back.

By Kathleen BaileyDr. Kathleen Bailey, former assistant director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, is with the National Institute for Public Policy. / February 22, 1991

SHOULD the United States be prepared to retaliate with chemical weapons if Iraq uses them against the coalition forces? Iraq lost the air war, the Iraqi infrastructure is in danger of collapse, and yet Saddam persists. One reason almost certainly is that he is awaiting the ground war. Although he probably will not win, he will have a chance to accomplish his aim of inflicting large numbers of casualties on US and allied troops. His hope is that such losses would make the war unpopular in the US and result in a US pullout.

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In a ground war, Saddam can use his chemical artillery and tactics learned in Iraq's war with Iran. There are at least two reasons why he might think chemicals will do the trick. First, he beat Iran with them. Chemicals were used by Iraq only defensively until 1988. Chemical artillery and multiple rocket launchers were first integrated into the offensive in April of that year, and were essential to the turnaround of the war - Iraq's recapture of the Shatt-al-Arab waterway it had lost in 1984.

The second reason Saddam may not fear to use chemicals is confidence that the US will not retaliate in kind. The US ambassador to the Geneva negotiations on a global chemical-weapons ban has said that the US reserves the right to respond in kind to a chemical attack. However, there are political signals that the US will not resort to chemical weapons. Yet, there are good reasons why the US should reserve the option of responding to Saddam with chemicals-for-chemicals.

Knowledge of the effects of chemical weapons can deter their use. Hitler witnessed the horror of chemical-weapons effects during World War I. In World War II, he knew both sides possessed such weapons and agreed that they would not be used. Saddam also knows the horror of chemical weapons, as do the Iraqi troops. If Saddam were certain that a chemical attack would trigger a like response, he might hesitate.

IF Saddam uses chemical weapons and the US doesn't, Iraq will be in a good position to win the ground war since the US and allies will have to fight in chemical gear, which degrades the energy and ability to fight. Chemical protective gear is hot; it inhibits vision and communication; wearing it is psychologically debilitating. Furthermore, the presence of chemical agents is terrifying for a number of reasons, including the fact that it delays treatment of wounds due to the need for decontamination. The only way these disadvantages can be imposed on Iraqis as well is to use chemicals against them.

Why doesn't the US appear ready to threaten or actually use chemical weapons in retaliation? One reason is that chemical weapons are perceived by many to be immoral. The horror of the injury and death caused by chemicals is terrifying. Whether it is more agonizing than dying from bullet or shrapnel wounds is debatable, but the latter is clearly more ``acceptable.''

A second reason concerns the question of whether chemical-weapons retaliation by the US would serve to legitimize such weapons and thus undermine attempts in Geneva to negotiate a global chemical-weapons ban. It might. But a more important question is whether the US should be forfeiting its own chemical weapons when Iraq is willing to use chemicals on US troops. This question becomes even more relevant when you consider that countries like Libya, Syria, and Iran have chemical weapons that they probably will not give up, and even if they say they have done so, we have no technical means of verifying it.

The third reason is that the US has only a limited amount of deliverable chemical agent. If it is used in the Gulf war, US stockpiles will need to be replenished to maintain the minimal level President Bush has said the US will retain. Yet, Mr. Bush has also committed the US to non-production of chemical weapons.

Of the 30,000 tons of chemical agent the US purportedly possesses, as little as 10 percent may be usable. The reason that the US was due to start producing chemical weapons again was that the majority of the stockpile is leaky, undeliverable, or insufficiently safe. The new weapons were to be binaries - two chemicals which are kept separate for safety and become a weapon only when mixed.

In May 1990, President Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev concluded an executive agreement on a bilateral ban on chemical-weapons production. Although the agreement has not yet been submitted to Congress for approval, the US is already complying with its terms and is not producing chemical weapons. (There is no way of knowing whether the Soviet Union is.) This is despite the fact that the US does not have 5,000 tons of deliverable agent. The US and USSR are to reduce their chemical stockpiles to 5,000 tons by the year 2002.

How does this influence the decision whether to use chemical weapons in the Gulf war? If the US were to use its limited stockpile in retaliation for Iraqi chemical weapons use, it would not be able to maintain a minimal deterrent stockpile vis-a-vis the Soviet Union unless additional chemical agent were produced. Bush prefers not to do this; it would be inconsistent with his agreement with Gorbachev.

The president has said that US troops will have the tools and support they need to win, and to win with the fewest casualties possible. Unfortunately, chemical weapons might be one of the most effective tools against Saddam's troops, who are likely to use them first. The US should make it clear that it is prepared to respond in kind. Such a threat might deter Saddam. Even if it does not, a US chemical-weapons response could shorten a ground war and assure that the coalition does not have to fight in chemical protective gear when the Iraqis do not.