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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- U.S. Troops Worry Crossing 'Trigger Line' May Provoke Chemical, Biological Attack

RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz is "embedded" with the tactical operations center of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team in the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division. Today he reports from outside the city of Karbala that U.S. troops leading the push toward Baghdad are increasingly concerned that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein may use his alleged arsenal of chemical and biological weapons if he feels his defeat is imminent.

Near Karbala, Iraq; 1 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- As U.S. forces continue their northward advance toward Baghdad, U.S. military officials say they are becoming increasingly concerned about the possibility that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein may order an attack with chemical or biological weapons out of desperation.

Most rank-and-file American soldiers in Iraq say they are worried about crossing what they call "Saddam's trigger line."

They describe the "trigger line" as the point at which Saddam feels the collapse of his regime is imminent and that he no longer has anything to lose by launching an attack using chemical or biological agents.

Lieutenant Colonel Eric Wesley, the executive officer of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade, told RFE/RL today that U.S. military planners think Saddam is holding back on the use of chemical and biological weapons because such a move would cause him to lose the international sympathy the Baghdad regime has been cultivating since U.S. and British forces invaded the country just under two weeks ago.

U.S. President George W. Bush has cited Iraq's alleged chemical- and biological-weapons programs -- together with Saddam's alleged ties to international terrorist networks -- as a threat to U.S. and international security that justifies the invasion. But the Baghdad regime has consistently denied that it has any chemical or biological weapons.

In the U.S. Army's battlefield planning tents in Iraq, there is little doubt among American military officers that Saddam is lying about his alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Photographs of chemical factories and nearby bunkers suspected of being chemical-weapons storage sites are taped to the giant maps detailing the U.S. battle plans.

As U.S. forces advance closer to Baghdad, they are discovering rooms full of gas masks and protective suits designed to withstand the kind of chemical weapons that Washington alleges Iraq now has.

Major Joffrey Watson, an intelligence officer with the 2nd Brigade, told RFE/RL today U.S. military planners are concerned that the seizure of the city of Karbala, located about 80 kilometers southwest of Baghdad, could be Saddam's "trigger line" for a chemical attack. Watson explained that if U.S. forces take control of Karbala it would "expose a hole" in the Iraqi defenses around Baghdad.

Today is the fifth consecutive day of a massive U.S. bombardment in and around Karbala against positions of Saddam's elite Republican Guard and troops from Iraq's Al-Qads national guard.

That bombardment has included attacks by U.S. fighter jets and B-52 bombers, Apache helicopters, A-10 attack planes, multiple-launch rocket systems, ground-launch missiles, and heavy artillery.

From Karbala, U.S. heavy artillery also would be able to join in the ongoing U.S. air and missile strikes against Republican Guard tanks and artillery positioned to the south and southwest of Baghdad as part of what Saddam has called a "ring of steel" defense around the Iraqi capital.

Control of Karbala also would open land routes leading to Baghdad that would allow U.S. armor to drive rapidly toward the Iraqi capital by circumventing the marshy, irrigated agricultural fields that have bogged down some American tanks in recent days.

Yesterday, during a U.S. armor advance on the city of Al-Hindya located some 20 kilometers from Karbala, one U.S. tank -- with "Bush and Company" painted on its gun barrel -- became stuck in what the soldiers call the "soft and squishy stuff" when a levee collapsed beneath it -- forcing the rest of the tank column to spend hours looking for an alternative route to their objective.

As U.S. forces close in on Baghdad, they also are advancing within the 40-kilometer range of Iraq's 155-millimeter heavy artillery. Watson says the 155-millimeter artillery shells are considered the most likely method for Saddam to deliver chemical or biological strikes against U.S. troops.

For that reason, U.S. air strikes in recent days have been focusing on trying to knock out as many Iraqi heavy artillery pieces as possible.

U.S. officials have warned that Iraq could also deliver an attack from small, unmanned airplanes that spray chemicals or biological agents over areas where U.S. forces are concentrated.

The American defense against a chemical attack delivered via radio-controlled Iraqi planes is a modified Bradley troop carrier that travels with the frontline troops.

Each air-defense vehicle has four ground-to-air Stinger missiles mounted and ready to fire at a moment's notice. The vehicles also carry six extra Stinger missiles that can be loaded from inside and can pop up to fire.

First Lieutenant Scott McKenzie, the leader of a platoon of air-defense vehicles with the 3rd Infantry Division, said there are now scores of the vehicles protecting the U.S. advance.

Like many commanders of the air-defense vehicles, Staff Sergeant Steve Erdenberger is now fulfilling a double security duty for the U.S. troops. He stays on the lookout for ground attacks by using the thermal ground targeting system of his 25-millimeter chain gun, while also keeping an eye on the special radar devices mounted inside his turret. When any aircraft is flying in the area, an icon appears on the radar screen identifying it as either friendly or unknown.

If he sees any unknown aircraft making an aggressive or hostile movement, his orders are to immediately contact his senior commander to confirm whether he or other air-defense vehicles in the area should shoot it down with their Stinger missiles.