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Czech Republic: Specialized Unit Prepares For Possible War Against Iraq

Both houses of the Czech parliament are due to meet tomorrow to debate the government's decision this week to comply with a U.S. request for assistance in the event of a military operation against Iraq. The Czech government wants a new UN mandate -- either a Security Council resolution or a declaration by the president of the Security Council -- in order for Czech soldiers currently stationed in Kuwait to be used.

Prague, 15 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Czech parliament is expected to approve the government's recommendation of limited participation in any U.S.-led military attack against Iraq.

On 4 January, the U.S. asked the Czech Republic for permission to travel across its territory by land or by air and for the use of a Czech military unit that specializes in the effects of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. "That means we are not being asked for a fighting unit or for us to be on the front lines or for a new use for our military units. We are being asked to provide a capability which we have, which we have offered to the [NATO] alliance, to the international community in its fight against terrorism. It's the ability to rescue people in the event that weapons of mass destruction are used," Czech Defense Minister Jaroslav Tvrdik said.

The unit is already in Kuwait and will remain there. A second unit may be deployed elsewhere in the region if warranted.

The head of Czech military intelligence, General Josef Proks, said Iraq continues to be interested in acquiring weapons of mass destruction and the technology for their production, despite claims to the contrary. He said that, in view of the length of time it takes to develop and produce nuclear weapons, it is unlikely that Iraq has any ready to use. "But if we speak of radiological weapons, also known as dirty bombs, there is a real danger that [Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein] could use them, since he owns the components and the radioactive materials to make them. There is a real danger that he will use biological and chemical weapons," he said.

The Czech military intelligence chief also said that the quantities of chemical and biological weapons Saddam claims to have destroyed since the 1991 Gulf War are not consistent with the quantities he possessed. As a result, Proks said the burden of proof is on Iraq to prove what it has done with the remainder.

Proks noted that Iraq is believed to have sarin and VX gas, among others, in its arsenal of chemical weapons, as well as anthrax, aflatoxin, smallpox, and ricin in its arsenal of biological weapons.

"There is a real chance that [Iraq] will use weapons of mass destruction against troops. I think by using these weapons against troops, they could cover an area required for the deployment of a battalion. At present, they have the capability to strike bases, be they air bases, airports or naval bases -- ports, bases of ground troops. It's a real danger -- for our [Czech] troops, too," Proks said.

Using such weapons, he said Iraq could contaminate an area encompassing several square kilometers, preventing the advance of troops for hours or even days, depending on the type of material used, how it was used and the weather.

Having used such weapons against Iraqi Kurdish civilians in 1991, Proks said there is no reason to believe that Saddam would not use such weapons again -- against his own citizens, as well as against foreign forces.

Proks said that although Iraqi collaboration with individual terrorist organizations in certain attacks has not been absolutely proven, "nevertheless, there is clear evidence that it finances and materially assists surviving family members of those who carried out suicide attacks."

Proks says Iraq is preparing for war by exercising troops under conditions in which weapons of mass destruction, especially chemical weapons, would be used. "[Iraq] is withdrawing these units to the capital city. And what is peculiar are the tactics he uses. Individual parts of the military -- antiaircraft systems, radio locators, and the means for using chemical weapons -- are being redeployed to the city, to inhabited areas, creating numerous targets out of hospitals, schools, and humanitarian centers. [Saddam] is making his own population into human shields, and we can say [making them] hostages," he said.

Proks said the Czech Republic faces a variety of potential threats in the event of any U.S.-led attack on Iraq. "The first threat is the threat of a terrorist attack. Groups financed by Saddam Hussein are on European territory. That is a reality. If there is the threat of a terrorist attack being carried out at present -- and we have enough examples from the past year -- this threat would increase in the short term, possibly as a response [to a U.S.-led attack]. But in the long term, of course, the threat will diminish since one of the sources of support of terrorism would be eliminated. In addition, there are groups linked to Al-Qaeda under various covers in Europe. We call these sleeping cells."

In addition, Proks noted the increased activity of Iraqi intelligence in the Czech Republic. He says potential Czech targets include Czech military missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan. "I'd like to point out that the Balkans, of course, is a territory that has the potential for being misused to carry out any sort of threat because there are Muslim countries in the Balkans. There are Muslim communities there," Proks said.

The commander of the Czech military health service, General Jan Petras, is an expert in biological warfare. He told RFE/RL: "From the spectrum of Iraq's biological materials, what has grabbed my attention is one substance -- aflatoxin. Aflatoxin is a [fungal] poison which causes extensive proliferation of tumors on the liver. So far, nothing special, except that the proliferation of tumors takes months or even years -- sometimes five years."

Petras said aflatoxin is not suitable for use by the military. "As a specialist, I have to ask what is Saddam's doctrine which counts on the use of this substance? This really is not a combat-biological substance used against troops. It isn't a substance that incapacitates armies for a specific length of time so as to significantly reduce their ability to fight. It is a substance that can only be used for terrorism and is intended to be used against the [civilian] population."

Petras said the only explanation for Iraq's large stock of aflatoxin is that Saddam intends to use aflatoxin "against any state in [Iraq's] vicinity or beyond in the belief that a part of the population of these states will subsequently die, perhaps after five years."

Petras said another problem is Iraq's research into smallpox. He notes that in 1992, shortly after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia shut down its massive biological-weapons program, which he says employed 3,500 scientists and 10,000 other workers. He claims that one facility -- Vektor, in Koltsovo in the Urals -- annually produced 80,000 to 100,000 tons of smallpox culture.

"These people were all of a sudden out of a job. There are records, names, professions of people from this program who left [Russia], be it for Iraq, North Korea, Somalia or wherever, and continued to deal with biological [weapons] programs, just under the logo of some other 'firm,'" Petras said.

Petras said there has been plenty of speculation since 1992 over just how many former Soviet biological weapons experts resettled in Iraq. He insisted Iraq definitely possesses biological cultures, including smallpox, and the technology to disseminate them.

"I think that to the extent that Iraq has the smallpox [culture] -- smallpox belongs to Iraq's arsenal of biological weapons -- [Iraq] is willing to use it. I'm saying that not only the population in Iraq is threatened or the armies that will go into Iraq. Smallpox won't stop at Iraq's borders but will spread further," he said.

The commander of the Czech armed forces chemical troops, Colonel Dusan Lupuljev, said there are clear reasons why the U.S. has appealed to the Czech Republic to supply its chemical-warfare-protection unit: "At present, in terms of the whole scale of coalition units, our unit makes up 30 percent of the capacity of the allies' defense against weapons of mass destruction. Or to be more precise, defense against the effects caused by weapons of mass destruction, protection from accidents involving weapons of mass destruction, protection against accidents resulting from the leakage of industrial toxic substances, and protection from other accidents."

Lupuljev said the capabilities of the Czech unit are several times greater than the other units of allied forces. For example, he says the equivalent German unit is capable of decontaminating 50 people or eight vehicles per hour, while the Czech unit has the means to decontaminate 500 people or 200 vehicles per hour.

Moreover, he described the Czech unit as being compact and capable of dealing with the effects of all types of weapons of mass destruction, including biological weapons. In addition, it has detection and analysis equipment and is one of the first armies in the world to possess filters to protect itself from 70 toxic industrial substances. As Lupuljev put it, "Not even the U.S. Army at present is equipped with such filters."