No sign of ‘trigger’ for Iraqi arsenal




By Mark Huband, Security Correspondent, in London

Financial Times, 26 March 2003

Iraq’s military planners have not given any sign that the use of chemical or other non-conventional weapons will automatically be triggered by US and UK forces coming within a specific distance of Baghdad.

US officials were reported on Monday as having said that the Iraqi leadership had drawn a “red line” around the capital which would trigger the use of chemical weapons by Republican Guard units if crossed by the invading armies.

No specific intelligence has been received from eavesdropping or other sources to suggest that the Republican Guard units have received this instruction, a senior western intelligence official said on Tuesday.

The focus of coalition forces moving north towards the capital from the town of Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, is now on two Republican Guard divisions positioned to the south of the capital. US Apache helicopter gunships and troops of the US 5th Corps launched the first attacks against the Medina division of the Republican Guard north of Karbala on Tuesday.

Despite some suggestions that the chain of command between the Iraqi leadership and military units had broken down, there is evidence to show that this is not the case. A continued flow of orders, relayed by radio messages that can be intercepted, has permitted assessments of Iraq’s military strategy, officials say.

Regarding the possible use of chemical weapons against the advancing forces, a senior intelligence officer said that suggestions of an automatic response using weapons of mass destruction “is completely hypothetical”.

“It’s not as if we know from the Iraqis that there are red lines around Baghdad,” he said.

US and UK forces have yet to find hard evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programme, despite having occupied two of the 16 sites identified by the CIA as part of Iraq’s chemical warfare programme, as well as two airfields possibly linked with missile testing.

It is unclear how Iraqi units might deploy chemical or other non-conventional weapons in the battlefield, though US officials have suggested that units within the Republican Guard may be responsible for deployment. Equally, the scale of Iraq’s chemical weapons arsenal remains uncertain.

In its 173-page assessment of this arsenal published on 3 March, UN weapons inspectors said that 550 mustard gas-filled shells and up to 450 mustard gas-filled aerial bombs listed in 1991 had not been accounted for.

Iraq’s ability to deliver its weapons of mass destruction also remains uncertain. It said it had built or bought about 30,000 aerial bombs for use with chemical or biological weapons in 1983-90. UN inspectors found evidence of the destruction of tens of thousands of these. But evidence suggested that 6,526 fewer chemical bombs were used during the Iran-Iraq war than Iraq had said.


© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008.