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Iraq: As Invasion Looms, U.S. Troops Prepare For Possible Iraqi Chemical Or Biological Attack

As U.S. military forces in northern Kuwait mobilize for war against Iraq, the biggest concern on the minds of U.S. troops is the possibility of an Iraqi chemical or biological attack. RFE/RL has been following the preparations that U.S. soldiers are making to protect themselves from Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction.

Near the Iraqi Border, Kuwait; 18 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Ask U.S. soldiers poised in the desert of northern Kuwait about their fears ahead of an imminent invasion of Iraq, and one answer is given without hesitation. The answer is the same, whether given by the lowest-ranking private or the senior commander of the U.S. Army's Third Infantry Division, Major General Buford Blount III: "The potential use of chemical weapons or biological weapons would be my biggest concern. But I'm not staying awake worrying about it. We're very well-prepared for that. We've got good equipment. Soldiers are trained how to use it. But [the possibility of such an attack] is an unknown to them, so it does cause them some concern."

Blount's answer is firm when asked what would happen to his battle plan for a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq if President Saddam Hussein does launch a chemical or biological attack. He said the mission to "create the conditions for regime change" in Baghdad will continue. And he said that any call for U.S. retaliation would be a decision that would have to be made by the commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces, President George W. Bush. "We would continue our mission. You know, the response level would be above our echelon. We can fight through it. We can protect ourselves, decontaminate ourselves, and continue on with our existing mission," Blount said.

Even without resorting to its long-range missiles like the Al-Sumud 2, Hussein's forces are believed to have the ability to fire chemical or biological agents at U.S. troops within Iraq by using artillery shells. But senior U.S. military officials say artillery shells laced with chemical or biological agents simply would not have the range of the larger missiles.

Colonel Daniel Allyn, commander of the U.S. Army's Third Brigade Combat Team, told reporters today that he does expect an Iraqi chemical or biological attack.

Indeed, all U.S. troops going into battle will be wearing special charcoal-lined suits (known as "NBC gear") that have been designed to protect them from biological agents or chemical weapons. In addition to camouflage protective pants and jackets, NBC gear also includes a gas mask, special boots, gloves, and helmet covers.

Gas masks are constantly carried by soldiers in green bags strapped around their left leg. If deadly agents are detected, an alarm would be raised with the cry, "Gas! Gas! Gas!" The troops are trained to don their gas mask within nine seconds.

RFE/RL's correspondent near Kuwait's northern border with Iraq watched an entire task force of nearly 1,000 soldiers perform the ritual yesterday in a surprise drill, with the soldiers shouting once their gas masks were in place.

As a mechanized infantry task force moves forward into battle, it includes an armored chemical-detection vehicle -- nicknamed the "Fox" -- that takes samples from the air and the soil.

U.S. Army policy prevents female soldiers from serving in frontline duty in combat units. But the new Fox vehicles are considered part of combat support teams. That means female crew members of Fox teams going into Iraq will be closer to the front lines than women in the U.S. Army have ever been.

The commander of the Fox for the Third Infantry Division's 1-15 Task Force is a 29-year-old 2nd lieutenant named Sylvia Aponte from Louisiana. Despite the historic implications of her role in an invasion of Iraq, she said she does not consider herself to be a trailblazer for women. She said she considers herself first and foremost to be a soldier and that she is no different from any of the other soldiers now massed near Iraq's southern border.

Aponte said that if her crew detects any chemical or biological agents, an alarm is sounded. Orders would be given to vehicles and troops to test themselves for contamination. "Dirty" soldiers and vehicles must immediately report to a decontamination area.

It is clear from observing recent drills in northern Kuwait that the entire process would delay any advance toward Baghdad, particularly in desert areas where water resources are scarce.

Such an attack also would force soldiers to discard their body armor, designed to protect them from shrapnel and bullets, which they must wear on the outside of their protective NBC suits. The porous material inside flak jackets easily absorbs chemical agents.

Rifles and vehicles can be cleaned. But every vehicle must go through a laborious five-step decontamination process that would keep them out of action for at least two to three hours. The potential for traffic jams and confusion is immense.

First Lieutenant Crystal Lloyd is a chemical officer in the 203rd Forward Support Battalion, a decontamination unit that would have to clean scores of tanks, armored personnel carriers, Humvees, fuel tankers, and other vehicles. "Ten vehicles take two to three hours [to decontaminate], as an estimate. That's all the vehicles we can do with our internal water support [the water they carry with them]. But with external water support, we can continue on and do more vehicles. Internally, we can carry about 5,100 gallons [of water] [more than 23,000 liters]. In order to do more vehicles, we have our [external water containers] that hold up to 9,000 more gallons of water [41,000 liters]. So we can be pretty effective with water support," Lloyd said.

But filling those extra containers with enough water to decontaminate an entire task force would depend on access to a nearby water supply. First Lieutenant Lloyd said that if she is forced to set up her decontamination stations in a desert area, the water supply will definitely become an issue.