U.S. military analysts say the biggest risk American troops would face in a war against Saddam Hussein is the possibility that the Iraqi leader could use chemical and biological weapons. Chemical and biological detection teams are standing by in northern Kuwait for possible deployment to the battlefield.
For months, U.S. military planners have been trying to assess how Iraq would use chemical and biological weapons in the case of war.
Iraq said it no longer has such weapons. But the United States believes Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein still maintains an extensive hidden arsenal, which he may unleash on attacking U.S. troops.
U.S. officials say Iraq has the ability to deliver chemical poisons and biological agents in a variety of ways - inside artillery shells, rockets and ballistic missiles, and releasing them from manned and unmanned aircraft.
Faced with such a threat, the U.S. Army is prepared to deploy numerous amphibious reconnaissance vehicles to accompany lead units into battle.
The airtight, 20-ton, German-built vehicles - called Fox Reconnaissance Vehicles - are loaded with detection and analysis equipment. Specialist Walter Shanks with the Army's 83rd Chemical Company operates a mobile mass spectrometer, a sensor machine that can pick up and identify as many as 100 chemical agents from five kilometers away.
"There are predominant ions in every chemical and [the spectrometer] is programmed to look for those ions. And whenever it encounters [them], that is when the alarm will go off. Had this been a real live chemical environment, it would tell us what was out there and at what concentration," he said.
Specialist Shanks said that if there is time, a specially trained soldier would don a protective rubber glove he can push out from inside the vehicle to collect water, soil, vegetation, and dead tissue samples. The samples would then be taken to a collection point for further analysis.
The spectrometer is most effective for hunting down chemical agents, but it can also detect some biological agents and can determine the extent of nuclear contamination in a given area.
In Kuwait, a joint chemical task force consisting of German, Czech and American soldiers is on alert to respond to a pre-emptive strike by Iraq on Kuwait City and more than a dozen U.S. military bases spread across the country.
The three countries in the so-called consequence management task force have different responsibilities. The Americans are in charge of coordinating responses. The Germans are focused on detecting and identifying chemical agents and the Czechs concentrate on decontamination and medical response.
In the event of war, the reconnaissance vehicles and soldiers would not accompany U.S. troops. But the Czechs have indicated that their unit would go into battle if they are needed.
The Iraqi army used chemical weapons extensively during an eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s, killing tens of thousands of Iranian troops and civilians. In 1988, Saddam Hussein attacked Iraqi Kurd civilians in the northern city of Halabja with chemical weapons. Five thousand ethnic Kurds died after a single assault.