One of the greatest fears surrounding a war against Iraq is the possibility Baghdad could retaliate with weapons of mass destruction against neighboring countries. One of the most worried states is Kuwait, which is the main staging ground for U.S.-led forces in the region. But civilians here can take some comfort from the presence of a battalion of Czech and Slovak soldiers specially trained to detect chemical and biological attacks and save victims.
Kuwait City, 13 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- On a suburban desert field near the Kuwaiti Fair Grounds, Czech and Slovak soldiers shrouded in protective suits are conducting an emergency exercise with Kuwaiti medical teams. The exercise begins with the scream of ambulances racing toward a hastily constructed decontamination area, delivering dozens of victims of a simulated nerve-gas attack on a nearby neighborhood in Kuwait City.
The victims are quickly unloaded by the soldiers, who carry the stretchers with all the grace of deep-sea divers running across a beach. Each of the soldiers is wearing 3.5 kilograms of head-to-toe suiting to protect against nuclear, biological, or chemical substances, which makes normal movement impossible.
The soldiers rush the victims into a line of tents and begin to decontaminate them. First, the victims' clothes are roughly stripped off. Then their faces and bodies are scrubbed with brushes and hosed with chemical detergent. A few minutes later, still on the stretchers, the victims are bundled into a medical tent, where treatment for the effects of the nerve agent inside their bodies can finally begin.
The exercise clearly demonstrates the horrors of a nuclear, biological, or chemical (NBC) attack. People caught in one are contaminated with substances that will certainly kill them if they are not quickly removed. And it is not safe for anyone but the men in suits to help them until that happens.
The presence in Kuwait of 469 Czech and Slovak soldiers who specialize in coping with NBC attacks is an indication of how seriously Kuwait takes the danger of Iraq's launching weapons of mass destruction against it. The soldiers have been deployed here by NATO for almost a year as part of the war on terrorism. They are equipped to deal with both terrorist and conventional NBC threats.
Right now, their focus is entirely on Baghdad.
Colonel Dusan Lupuljev is the commander of the 1st NBC Battalion of the Czech Army, which contributes 400 soldiers to the combined Czech and Slovak battalion. He said he is certain that Baghdad possesses weapons of mass destruction. "We are saying almost every day that the possible threat is very, very high. You can see almost every day a new message coming from Iraq that UN observers find something new and something suspicious. And we have information that in Iraq there are a lot of weapons of mass destruction. I don't mean the means of delivery, but the agents themselves," Lupuljev said.
While it remains uncertain whether Baghdad has the intention or the capability of using missiles to attack Kuwait with chemical or biological weapons, Lupuljev said his group is taking no chances. Each day, the battalion sends two patrol cars with monitoring equipment around Kuwait City and surrounding areas. The cars can detect the presence of chemical or biological agents locally and, in some cases, use lasers to identify the contents of suspicious clouds at great distances.
Lupuljev said that if hostilities look certain to begin, the number of patrol cars can be increased to 14. That would use all the Czech-Slovak battalion's monitoring vehicles, plus six more cars supplied by German troops who are cooperating with it. "Now we have two patrols every day regularly monitoring the situation in Kuwait City, and if the situation will be more tense, and if there will be the reason for [doing so], we are able to increase the number of the patrols up to eight. And there are other German patrols. They can increase the number of their patrols up to six. So it means altogether 14 patrols," Lupuljev said.
In an attack, the patrol cars could immediately deduce the type of chemical or biological weapon being used and radio the information back to the battalion's headquarters near the Kuwaiti Fair Grounds, which is several kilometers from the city center. Soldiers would then rush tents to a site near the attack and set up a decontamination line for cleaning the victims.
The time to set up a line of tents -- always upwind from the "hot zone" of the attack itself -- is 12 minutes.
Major Ludevik Lavicka is the press spokesman for the NBC battalion. He said that when all the group's facilities are in operation, it can decontaminate up to 1,000 people an hour. Teams can also set up special drive-through gates that can decontaminate vehicles, assuring that they do not spread contaminants out of the "hot zone" itself. "The capacity of our NBC Czech and Slovak battalion is 1,000 people in one hour and 300 cars in one hour. We have many types of decontamination lines. It depends on the situation. If there is any type of incident, we can prepare for any type of incident in Kuwait," Lavicka said.
Lavicka said that each member of the battalion has several different kinds of NBC suits that offer protection from various toxic substances, ranging from VX nerve agents to mustard gas. All of the suits are so heavy that, without special measures, the soldiers can wear them for only one hour before succumbing to heat exhaustion. The special measures include standing intermittently under a cold outdoor shower, which cools the garment and extends the wearing time by several hours.
The Czech-Slovak battalion is considered to have some of the best capabilities within NATO for dealing with nuclear, biological, and chemical attacks because of extensive training and experience. The former Czechoslovakia was one of the foremost countries in the Warsaw Pact in preparing defenses against any NBC attacks from the West during the Cold War. It recently was tasked by NATO to continue that specialization as part of membership in the Atlantic alliance.
Jana Hybaskova is the Czech ambassador to Kuwait. She told reporters at today's exercise that Prague intends to become the leading NATO member for dealing with NBC attacks. "The Czech Republic is becoming the leading NATO NBC force. So the Czech technology sets nowadays the standards for the whole NATO organization. This is the main military specialization of our country. We were trained for this NBC specialization already in the Warsaw Pact, so this is nothing new," Hybaskova said.
Kuwait, which has no NBC force of its own, recently distributed 200,000 gas masks to civil-defense workers as part of its preparation for any U.S.-led war on Iraq.
Kuwait feels particularly vulnerable to an Iraqi retaliation because it was Baghdad's invasion of the emirate in 1990 that set off the 1991 Gulf War. The Gulf War ended with the United Nations placing economic sanctions on Iraq in an effort to force Baghdad to give up all of its weapons of mass destruction, a condition Baghdad has never officially met.
Washington has said it is prepared to lead a coalition of willing states against Iraq to disarm it by force, if necessary. Some 250,000 U.S. and British troops are now in Kuwait awaiting any order to attack.