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Will Saddam Use Chemical Weapons? - 2003-03-25


As the battle for Baghdad draws closer, the question looms over whether Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein will order the use of chemical weapons against U.S. and British troops.

U.S. military officials have said the Iraqi leader may decide to launch chemical weapon attacks if American and British forces draw within 50 kilometers of Baghdad. And the coalition forces are prepared for such a possibility.

The former acting U.S. Ambassador in Iraq, Joseph Wilson, says he believes Saddam Hussein will use chemical weapons, if he has the opportunity.

"Both he and [Foreign Minister] Tariq Aziz told me when I was there in the [19]90s that they reserve the right to use every weapon in their arsenal to defend themselves against invaders," he said. "Now, I interpret "every weapon in their arsenal" to be weapons of mass destruction, if they have them and are capable of using them."

Ambassador Wilson was the last U.S. diplomat to meet with Saddam Hussein before the start of "Desert Storm" in 1991.

Retired U.S. Air Force General Thomas McInerney agrees the Iraqi leader will likely use chemical weapons. General McInerney is surprised that Saddam did not use them when U.S. forces were concentrated along the Iraq-Kuwait border.

"The successful part of this campaign... is that he has not used them when he had the best opportunity, when we were still massed," General McInerney said. "Now he is in a position to try to have to use them from an artillery position when he is being engaged by air bombardment and ground bombardment, etcetera, in the most difficult time. But I do still think he will try to use them. But he is going to use them when we are best prepared. He is going to use them at our strength."

Retired U.S. Army General Thomas Rhame disagrees.

"The closer we close [in] on Baghdad, I have a real hard time coming to grips with any man, given the vulnerability of chemical systems to the weather, using any sort of [chemical] like a VX agent or a mustard agent in the vicinity of the populated area of Baghdad, which is the capital," he said. "We are simply too close."

General Rhame, who commanded an infantry division during Desert Storm, says even Saddam Hussein would not want to risk the chance of chemicals blowing back on the citizens of Baghdad.

"VX is a nerve agent and if the wind changed on you, you could have a catastrophe on your hands, not on us, on his own population," assures General Rhame.

Because the U.S.-led coalition commands the sky over Iraq, General Rhame says the Iraqi leader would not be able to use fighter aircraft to deliver a chemical attack. Therefore, any attack would have to be delivered by artillery, and General Rhame says Saddam does not carry out artillery missions very well and may end up hitting the wrong people with chemicals.

Regarding the coming battle for Baghdad, General Rhame says he expects coalition forces to be successful in taking out Saddam's elite Republican Guard units ringing the capital. But he says the fight will be difficult.

"The major challenge in my view, in my personal opinion, is the reduction of Baghdad, because if the Republican Guard chooses to stand and fight for the city, which I think there are elements that will, it is going to be a major challenge to do that without destroying the city and injuring a bunch of people," he explained.

General McInerney predicts there will not be a major battle for Baghdad, but instead lots of smaller skirmishes, similar to the fighting that has occurred around the southern city of Basra.

Both generals agree the war has gone well for coalition forces. General McInerney says the number of casualties has been low so far.

"In the first 100 hours, we had 37 killed in action. In the first 100 hours of Desert Storm One, which is reputed to be one of the most brilliant campaigns in history, we had 148," he said. "I deplore any casualties. I deplore POWs. We had six through that same time frame, and we were up to 50 in 100 hours of Desert Storm. So, by any metric measure, not the emotion of losing people, it has been extraordinarily successful."

General Rhame says the U.S. military will handle the losses well, because casualties are expected in war. He says the American people will also endure the losses, as long as the war is going well for coalition troops.

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