Secretary of State Colin Powell said Monday the United States has intelligence information that, in a play for international sympathy, the Saddam Hussein regime might launch a chemical attack on its own civilians and blame U.S.-led coalition forces. Mr. Powell says U.S. officials are alert to the possibility that authorities in Baghdad may be contemplating deliberate attacks on Iraqi civilians, which they would then try to blame on coalition forces with the aim of "fundamentally" turning international public opinion against the United States.
In television interviews Monday, Mr. Powell said the U.S. intelligence reports suggest that one possible scenario would involve a chemical weapons attack against Shiite Muslims in southern Iraq.
The secretary of state said he "had no doubt" that Saddam Hussein would do such a thing if he though it would serve his interests.
However, he told the Fox News Channel the true source of such an attack would be difficult to conceal, and that it would prove that the Iraqi leader has been lying all along about having destroyed his weapons of mass destruction.
"We are concerned about it. We will follow this matter carefully," he said. "We'll also do everything we can to gather all the intelligence that we can. He has to be careful here, because the world knows he's done it before. And were he to do it again, it would be immediate acknowledgement of the fact that he has weapons of mass destruction of the kind that he has been swearing he does not have, and we have been insisting he does have and we continue to believe he does have."
Mr. Powell did not elaborate on the U.S. intelligence reports in his interview with Fox, and another session with London-based Sky News.
But a senior State Department official, who asked not to be named, said the United States has a report that Ali Hassan al-Majid, a cousin of Saddam Hussein and the newly-named Iraqi commander in the south, has been given authority to use chemical arms against the local Shiite population.
General Majid, known in the West as "Chemical Ali," has been blamed for the 1988 chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988 that killed an estimated 5,000 people.
The same official repeated charges, first raised by the Pentagon, that Iraq has been trying to acquire uniforms like those worn by U.S. and British troops in order to carry out atrocities against civilians and blame them on coalition forces.
He said U.S. concern about such tactics is growing after incidents already noted in the conflict in which Iraqi soldiers have faked surrenders, and posed as friendly civilians, in order to ambush coalition troops.