A senior U.S. military official says coalition forces are poised to start offensive operations against Iraq at any moment and they are prepared for Baghdad's possible retaliation with chemical or biological weapons.
Using military weapons jargon, a senior Pentagon official says some 250,000 U.S. troops in the Gulf region are now "locked and loaded," prepared to move into Iraq any time, any day.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says those American forces are keeping close watch in case Iraqi commanders order a pre-emptive strike, especially against the nearly 150,000 U.S. soldiers in Kuwait.
Asked if Iraqi artillery just over the border might fire chemical or biological weapons, the official says, "nothing would surprise us."
But the official tells VOA that while the Pentagon is aware of some information suggesting possible Iraqi preparations for the use of weapons of mass destruction, the official says there is no hard evidence and he cannot vouch for the validity of the indications.
In fact, the official goes on to make clear his belief that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein would be unlikely to use chemical or biological weapons except as a final act of desperation, perhaps as he tries to flee the country.
The official says he also believes any early use of weapons of mass destruction would destroy what he describes as Iraq's "facade" of compliance with U.N. disarmament demands. The official says he is not sure Saddam Hussein would want that, because, in the official's words, then the "floodgates" of support for U.S.- led action against Iraq would open.
The U.S. forces massed in the Gulf region include aircraft carriers in the Arabian and Mediterranean seas, plus scores of other vessels, some now positioned in the Red Sea for possible cruise missile launches across Saudi Arabia into Iraq. There are also radar-evading stealth bombers and fighters, likely to join in the first wave of an air campaign intended to shock Iraqis and thus achieve a rapid victory.
In addition, the senior Pentagon official says there are small numbers of Special Forces already on the ground in northern Iraq. And the official hints their numbers could grow significantly in a very short time.