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Saturday, March 29

Big question remains: Will Saddam use weapons of mass destruction?

By Derrick DePledge | GNS

WASHINGTON - In a war that top U.S. and British military officials insist is going mostly as expected, one of the biggest wild cards is whether Iraqi President Saddam Hussein still has the capability, or the will, to launch a chemical or biological attack against his neighbors or coalition forces surging toward Baghdad.

Ten days into the conflict, there was no convincing public evidence that Iraq has or is preparing to use weapons of mass destruction, aIthough the discovery of chemical suits, masks and antidotes among Iraqi soldiers could be ominous.

``That is a warning that we may face chemical combat at some point,’’ said Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The United States and Britain have degraded Iraq’s ability to launch missile attacks against Israel or its neighbors to the west, but Iraq continues to fire missiles, including one that damaged a shopping mall in Kuwait on Saturday.

Surgical air strikes and special operations units on the ground have targeted Iraq’s missile launchers, and the Patriot missile defense system has intercepted several Iraqi missiles. Combat air patrols are hunting for Iraq’s remaining missile launchers, and coalition ground forces control wide stretches of southern, western and northeastern Iraq. Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said coalition aircraft now dominate all but the air space over Baghdad and Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown to the north.

U.S. war strategists had feared that Iraq would use weapons of mass destruction against coalition forces gathered in Kuwait before the war or launch missile strikes at Israel to trigger a broader conflict in the Middle East. But no evidence has emerged so far that Iraq has attempted to modify conventional missiles with chemical or biological payloads.

The most disturbing discovery, according to U.S. and British military commanders, was the 3,000 chemical suits and antidotes found last week at a hospital near An Nasiriyah and other chemical suits and equipment recovered at Iraqi posts in the south. Coalition military commanders have said they have intelligence that the Iraqi military has been given orders to use chemical weapons if coalition forces advance past a certain line near Baghdad.

Two Iraqi ultralight aircraft were also spotted Friday over coalition soldiers and command and control facilities, and some commanders have worried that such aircraft might be used in chemical or biological attacks.

With thousands of coalition ground troops forming near the capital for what could be the decisive battle of the war, Saddam may have his best opportunity, and motive, to release his most dangerous weapons.

``We are now fighting the most desperate units of the dictator’s army,’’ President Bush said Saturday in his weekly radio address. ``The fighting is fierce and we do not know its duration, yet we know the outcome of this battle: The Iraqi regime will be disarmed and removed from power. Iraq will be free.’’

A chemical or biological attack could come in several forms, from ballistic missiles and artillery shells and rockets to bombs or aerial spraying. Iraq may also use guerrilla tactics, such as the car bomb that killed four U.S. soldiers Saturday at a checkpoint near An Najaf, to take chemical or biological weapons to the battlefield.

CIA intelligence suggests that Iraq possesses VX - a nerve agent - and mustard gas, and has the capability to produce anthrax and other biological agents. Iraq has repeatedly denied that it now has chemical or biological weapons.

In an analysis before the war, Maj. Gen. John Doesburg, commander of the Army’s Soldier and Biological Chemical Command, said Iraqi soldiers in general were not particularly well-trained in either protecting themselves or launching chemical or biological agents.

Every U.S. soldier, by contrast, has a full chemical suit and decontamination kit, and chemical and biological weapons specialists are assigned to each Army unit. The coalition is also using automatic detectors to search for the presence of chemical or biological weapons in the battlefield and has rapid response teams ready in the event of an attack.

Since allegations of an Iraqi chemical and biological weapons stockpile were among the main reasons President Bush opted for war, the Pentagon is facing daily questions about whether weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq.

Victoria Clarke, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said Saturday that it would take time to document Iraq’s stockpile.

``This regime has been the best at hiding things and dispersing it in small amounts to many, many different places,’’ Clarke said. ``So just try to manage expectations on that front.’’

Meanwhile, military and political analysts are divided over whether Saddam has the will to carry out a chemical or biological attack.

``The question is not whether Saddam will want to use them. It’s the forces under his command,’’ said Eric Taylor, a former Army chemical officer and an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

The elite Republican Guard has a choice between obeying Saddam’s orders and risking future war crimes charges or disobeying Saddam and risking that they or their families might be executed, Taylor said.

``I’m sure that scares the hell out of them,’’ he said.

George Lopez, a University of Notre Dame political science professor who has advised the United Nations and the State Department on economic sanctions against Iraq, said he believes Saddam still hopes to survive.

Using weapons of mass destruction would provoke an overwhelming coalition military response and quickly turn world public opinion against Iraq, Lopez said.

``I don’t believe this guy thinks this is the end,’’ Lopez said. ``I think he still thinks he can wiggle his way out.’’

(Contributing: Sean Naylor, Army Times)