'High risk' of chemical weapons use

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Intelligence reports indicate a high risk Iraq would use chemical weapons during a U.S.-led war to topple Saddam Hussein, Pentagon officials said Tuesday. Those reports indicate Saddam has given field-level commanders the authority to use chemical weapons on their own initiative.

"We continue to receive reports supporting the assertion that there is a high risk the Iraqi regime would use chemical weapons at some point," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Tuesday.

It was the first explicit statement from the Defense Department discussing the chemical weapons risk.

President Bush and other U.S. officials say Iraq has stocks of chemical weapons, including the deadly nerve agents sarin, cyclosarin and VX and a mustard agent like that first used in World War I. Saddam has repeatedly denied having chemical or biological weapons, though Iraq has acknowledged developing both before the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

U.S. officials say they believe Iraq's chemical weapons are under the control of the Republican Guard, Saddam's best trained and most loyal troops. A large part of those forces are concentrated in and around Baghdad, where U.S. officials are concerned that fighting involving chemical weapons could kill many Iraqi civilians.

Most of Iraq's chemical arsenal, officials say, is loaded onto artillery and rockets that have a range of about a dozen miles or less.

Pentagon officials who discussed the chemical weapons issue on condition of anonymity said it was unclear what rank of Iraqi officers had been given the authority to order chemical weapons use.

Coalition troops awaiting invasion orders have chemical protection gear and equipment that can detect clouds of chemical agents up to three miles away. American tanks and armored vehicles have filters designed to keep the troops inside safe from the deadly agents. Anticipating the possibility of chemical combat, U.S. troops have trained extensively on operating in a contaminated environment.

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