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Pentagon Still Expects Iraq to Use Chemical, Biological Weapons - 2003-03-31

One of the main objectives of Operation Iraqi Freedom is the discovery and destruction of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. So far, no chemical or biological weapons have been found by coalition troops, but defense officials are still bracing for the worst, as allied forces enter a so-called "red zone" of danger around Baghdad.

Chief Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke says that, so far, allied forces have been lucky. But Ms. Clarke tells reporters at the Pentagon that "bad things" could still happen, particularly as the military noose around Baghdad tightens.

"There has, as yet, been no Iraqi use of weapons of mass destruction. Of course, bad things may still occur," she said. "Some of the toughest fighting, as we have indicated, may well lie ahead."

Not only has there been no use of chemical or biological weapons after more than a week-and-a-half of coalition operations inside Iraq, no chemical or biological weapons have yet been found.

But senior defense officials note Iraqi chemical protective suits and gas masks have been discovered. They say, no weapons to date does not mean that the Bush administration was wrong and that Iraq has none.

"We still believe very strongly that the regime has the capability and, potentially, the intent to employ those weapons," said Major General Stanley McChrystal of the Pentagon's Joint Staff.

Officials suspect that most, if not all, of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction are being kept close to Baghdad, perhaps for use in a final act of regime desperation.

Coalition aircraft have for days been pounding away at military targets in and around the Iraqi capital, in an effort to degrade the capabilities of Iraqi forces. General McChrystal says special care is being taken to avoid hitting any possible chemical or biological weapons locations, to avoid releasing any toxic plumes. "We are very carefully targeting suspected, or potential storage sites ... so that we don't get an unintended effect," he said.

In the meantime, coalition troops in the field are on high alert, keeping their chemical protection suits on, or close at hand. While Pentagon officials say much effort has been spent on targeting possible chemical or biological weapons delivery systems, like rockets and missiles, General McChrystal warns, Iraqi authorities might try more unconventional means.

"They can be put in fairly small, difficult to predict areas," he said. "They can be delivered by everything from a garbage truck to a car bomb, as well as, of course, conventional artillery. So, we have got to maintain our own posture in preparation for that."

In the meantime, military psychological operations specialists are continuing their verbal onslaught, aimed at deterring any Iraqi use of chemical weapons.

Leaflets have been dropped, radio broadcasts made, computer e-mails sent and even phone calls placed, all telling Iraqi commanders not to use weapons of mass destruction, and warning of possible war crimes prosecutions, if they do.

A senior military official says it is impossible to know if the campaign is having an impact and whether that may be the reason why no chemical or biological weapons have been used so far by Iraqi forces.

But, curiously, given the administration's fears, this official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says he considers Iraqi use of these deadly tools to be extremely unlikely.

This official says, if Iraq's leaders are entertaining any hope of some sort of negotiated settlement of the war, short of total capitulation, then their use of weapons of mass destruction will destroy that prospect. At the same time, it will legitimize Operation Iraqi Freedom, ending any doubts about the merits of the coalition's objectives.