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.
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."
British Col. Chris Vernon says that Hussein is likely to hold and hide his chemicals until late in a war, if and when US and British troops besiege Baghdad. "He won't want to show he has them early, because he thinks that if he can hold off the allied advance, he still might negotiate a deal," he says. "British intelligence reports suggest, however, that he will use chemical weapons as a last resort."
Hussein could expect most diplomatic opposition to a US attack to evaporate if his regime used chemical or biological weapons. France's ambassador to the US declared yesterday that French opposition to a war against Iraq could vanish as soon as the Iraqi military fires the first volley of chemical agents at US and British forces.
But if Hussein has no chemical weapons - as French officials have speculated - some Western analysts say that the US and Britain will lose political ground in a war whose essential goal has been stated as: "To disarm Saddam of his dangerous weapons of mass destruction."
Even if the Iraqi Army has stockpiles of chemicals as Washington and London claim, its ability to deliver them has been called into question by former cabinet minister Robin Cook, who resigned from the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair late Monday night with an impassioned speech against the war.
But fears of an imminent chemical attack were enough yesterday to spark a run on a Kuwait City's main military supply center. Cashiers said that nearly 600 gas masks sold out after Mr. Bush issued an ultimatum for Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq.
Edai Tala shopped for last-minute supplies with his wife, El Ganin, who says she is preparing several special rooms with plastic and duct tape for her family of 21, each of whom now has a gas mask, to hunker down in.
Mrs. Tala says she isn't really sure if Hussein has chemical weapons, mostly because she thinks he would have used them on Kuwait already if he did.
Still, even as she talks of her fears, her views appear to change. "Mr. Blix and Mr. ElBaradei [senior UN weapons inspectors] haven't found anything yet, but I still think he has something," she says. "I mean, I'm just hoping that if he does, the US military will be able to intercept them as they fly through the sky."
But despite an overwhelming dislike for Hussein and the real threat that he represents to Kuwait, not all Kuwaitis have lined up in the prowar camp.
Many fear that aggravating the Iraqi dictator could be worse than trying to live alongside him. Iraq, which invaded Kuwait in 1990, sparking the 1991 Gulf War, has said it will retaliate against any country hosting invasion forces.
"Why provoke the old man?" asks Abdur Wahab, who was also shopping for last-minute supplies. "He may be just waiting for this opportunity."
• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.