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Turkey: Exercise Prepares For Possible Chemical, Biological Attack By Iraq

This week, Norwegian experts have been conducting special training for local civil-defense personnel in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir. The exercises are designed to allow local officials to become acquainted with nuclear, biological, and chemical protection and decontamination equipment. The equipment is being provided to Turkey by fellow NATO member Norway under Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty in response to Ankara's concerns about possible attacks by Iraq.

Diyarbakir, Turkey; 28 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Dozens of Turkish civil-defense personnel dressed head to toe in protective green uniforms rush into plastic booths to decontaminate injured "civilians" during an exercise simulating the effects of a chemical or biological attack to help local authorities practice proper response techniques.

The white-and-green plastic units contain three different wards. In the first ward, the clothes of contaminated civilians are removed and put in a special box. The patients are transferred to a second ward, where civil-defense personnel cleanse them with hot water and ordinary soap. In the third ward, the victims are given clean clothes and are then sent by ambulance to the nearest hospital.

The exercise re-creates the worst possible scenario: an Iraqi military attack on neighboring Turkey using nuclear, biological, or chemical (NBC) weapons. But the atmosphere in the training camp on this day is cheerful, and Turkish civil-defense personnel appear to be holding the exercise more for fun than for serious war preparation.

Omer Aslanhan is head of Diyarbakir's regional civil-defense directorate, which is responsible for rescue and decontamination operations in case of just such an attack. He made it clear that Turkey is not expecting an attack by the Iraqi military. "We are a peace-loving nation. Our principle is, 'Peace at home, peace in the world' [from a quote by Ataturk]. Since we are a peace-loving nation, the other side will also consider us as such. We don't expecting anything else," Aslanhan said.

Aslanhan said the fact that United Nations weapons inspectors could not find evidence of any nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons in Iraq makes him exclude such a threat. He downplayed a recent statement made by British Defense Minister Geoff Hoon that Iraq is prepared to use weapons of mass destruction in the current conflict.

Speaking through a gas mask, Suha Sevinc, a Turkish civil-defense servant and trainee, said the war in Iraq has created some concern among the general population in Turkey. "Because of the ongoing war in Iraq, this has been brought onto our agenda. But otherwise, we already had these kinds of [training] activities in the past, and we have been receiving information about possible nuclear, biological, and chemical attacks [by Iraq]," Sevinc said.

Neither officials from Diyarbakir's civil-defense directorate nor the Norwegian experts could elaborate on how well the region is actually equipped to deal with such an attack. It is not clear how many gas masks and decontamination units are available for civilian use in Turkey's southeastern Diyarbakir Province, with its population of more than 2 million.

The equipment being used in this week's exercises would only be able to handle a fraction of those who would be affected by such an attack.

Rune Gundersen is head of the Norwegian decontamination team. "NATO has a civilian organization, as well as a military organization. And we are supporting the civilian side here in Turkey. We are supporting them by giving two decontamination units to the Turkish civil defense," Gundersen said.

Gundersen added that Sweden is also planning to send decontamination units to Turkey soon but couldn't provide specifics.

After 30 minutes of training, Turkish civil-defense personnel emerge from their plastic-and-rubber suits bathed in sweat. They say it is difficult to stay in the suits without frequent breaks and that they hope there will be no need to wear them, other than for training.