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Iraq flexes its military trump card

A US military official said Monday that an Iraqi unit may have been equipped with chemical weapons.

By Philip SmuckerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 19, 2003



KUWAIT CITY

As the US confrontation with Iraq approaches a military climax, Saddam Hussein's final poker hand may pack a chemical or biological "wild card." British and US military officials wonder aloud if it will arrive with the "bang" of an altered warhead of an Al Samoud missile, in the "pow" of an artillery round, or even in the hand-delivered "poof" of a plastic grenade thrown by a civilian.

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For many of the 130,000 US troops packed cheek-to-jowl on bases in Kuwait, fears of an Iraqi chemical or biological attack trump concern about Mr. Hussein's dilapidated conventional armed forces. American soldiers huddled after live-fire exercises for final pep talks yesterday amid reminders of their mission to defang one of the world's most notorious dictators.

At the same time, US forces massing on the border may present a tempting target for the Iraqi leader if he decides to strike first.

A senior defense official in Washington said Monday that US intelligence had detected signs - but no solid proof - that an Iraqi Republican Guard unit south of Baghdad had been given chemical munitions.

As fears of anthrax and nerve-gas attacks heightened here, Kuwaiti citizens dashed for army-supply stores to buy gas masks and duct tape. Many of them appeared as panicked and confused about what they might face, similar to American citizens last month when a rush to buy such supplies hit the shores of the US.

President Bush asked most of the world this week to "show your cards," but the only player who matters now is Saddam Hussein.

A high-level US Marines "War Gaming" report, obtained by the Monitor through official Marine channels, suggests that the US response to an initial chemical weapons attack could well be "limited in scope."

The report of the "Marine Corps War Fighting Laboratory: Project Fast Train," a brainstorming session of active and former military leaders and planners held at Quantico, Va., stated: "The US must carefully consider its reaction to a first use of chemical weapons. An overreaction could make desired postwar objectives [which include restabilizing Iraq and installing some form of representative rule] very difficult to achieve, especially if it was an inadvertent or rogue release."

A British military official in Kuwait City, speaking on condition of anonymity, says, however, that the "rogue" elements lining up to release chemical weapons are likely already under the control of Hussein - and also could be in civilian clothes in big cities.

"If he has this stuff and has no real efficient means to deliver it, what better way than to fire chemicals by hand out of windows at close range in balloon-like containers," he says. An "inadvertent release," he adds, is far less likely.

Some Western military officials insist that anthrax and VX nerve gas are a commodities that the Iraqi dictator is likely to unleash early in his campaign to resist a US-led invasion. Not all the key players in this high-stakes gamble, however, subscribe to the widely held US theory, espoused by former NATO Supreme Commander Wesley Clark, that Hussein will quickly "use them or lose them."

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