WAR IN IRAQ: US military forces don protective gear as they cross Saddam’s thin ‘red line’




By Mark Huband in London

Financial Times, 3 April 2003

US forces, which moved yesterday to within 20 miles of Baghdad, are preparing for a possible chemical weapons attack by Iraq, senior US officers said.

US military planners have said the crossing yesterday of a “red line” around Baghdad by US forces could trigger a chemical attack, and troops in the forefront of the advance on the Iraqi capital yesterday began wearing protective boots.

US Brigadier General Vincent Brooks said the troops approaching Baghdad had crossed the “red line” thought to have been drawn by the Iraqi regime.

“If [chemical weapons are] used, we’ll be prepared for it being used. It causes us to maintain protective postures of our forces as they approach this area but it doesn’t make us stop,” he said.

However, intelligence officials say it would probably take more psychological and military pressures on the regime than the US advance before an attack using weapons of mass destruction would be authorised by the Iraqi regime.

“Saddam Hussein has two qualities: one is as a gambler and the other is as a survivor,” said a US security official. “His assessment of his situation is along the lines that if he can survive around four weeks of this pressure, then he could re-emerge as a survivor and he won’t have to gamble by using his chemical weapons.”

Iraq denies it has any weapons of mass destruction, and US and UK officials say the regime’s strategy will be determined in part by the credibility it would lose if it used weapons it denies possessing.

“It’s a mistake to try and draw a line on the map. We have always drawn it in terms of their level of desperation,” said a senior US official.

“So far, Saddam has probably got reasons to keep up some hopes and that is reflected in the fact that he hasn’t used weapons of mass destruction so far.”

The stiff resistance by the Iraqi army, Fedayeen militia and Ba’ath party militants in south and central Iraq is seen as having boosted regime morale and relieved pressure on it, in spite of the heavy bombardment of Baghdad and the severe losses suffered by the Republican Guard.

Iraq is accused of having hidden and sealed many of its weapons of mass destruction underground, while parts of its biological weapons programme are thought to have been installed inside trucks.

US and UK troops have so far only occupied areas where three alleged weapons of mass destruction-related sites are located, and have found no evidence of such a programme.

Of the 40 main sites alleged in US, UK and United Nations reports to have been part of Iraq’s programmes, 26 are within a 60-mile radius of Baghdad and still held by Iraqi troops. Intelligence officials say this is where combat weapons of mass destruction have probably been concentrated.

“If he had left it scattered around Iraq, we would have found it by now,” said a senior intelligence officer.

Some Republican Guard units are thought to have a biological or chemical capacity within their arsenals of conventional weapons. A breakdown in the Iraqi chain of command could also trigger their use, as it might lead field commanders to act on their own initiative.

“We are very early in the game, and people should be very cautious about predicting when Saddam sees the end approaching,” said a senior US official. “It could all turn round very quickly.”


© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008.