WASHINGTON — As U.S. Army forces take up positions in the Saudi Arabian desert, each soldier wears two awkward adornments strapped firmly to his thigh: a gas mask and a needle tinged with medicine. They are standard-issue antidotes for the horror of chemical war.
Absent from American combat since World War I, the threat of poison gas now lingers over the Middle East in a looming battle over oil. According to war planners and outside experts, it could raise major complications for the U.S. mission in the region.
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein used nerve gas in his eight-year war against Iran and chemical weapons against rebels in Iraq. Whether he actually would risk an American counterblow by unleashing the weapons again remains a topic of dispute.
But analysts warned that Hussein's capacity to play the chemical card will further hinder U.S. forces in an already hostile theater, requiring them at times to don rubber protective gear in already unyielding heat.
"The whole object of chemical war is to degrade the other side's performance," one intelligence official said. "In the desert, the threat alone may degrade U.S. troops from the start."
With proper precautions, the analysts said, the current contingent of elite American ground personnel confined to airfield duty probably could escape serious harm in the event of a first-strike Iraqi attack.
But they warned that an expected American escalation--and particularly any step to dispatch infantry forces to positions near or across enemy lines--could find itself bogged down by the overarching need to guard against chemical attack.
Despite a $9-billion U.S. effort aimed at fending off poison gas attack, experts express agreement that such a task remains "extraordinarily difficult," in the words of former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger.
And the problem is compounded by an adversary like Hussein, whose history reflects a willingness to use chemicals not merely in desperation but as a calculated instrument of attack. For Hussein, said Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, chemical warfare represents "an ace in the hole."
Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, emphasized Wednesday that U.S. soldiers in Saudi Arabia are well-equipped and well-trained in the protective tactics designed to survive a chemical attack, even in searing desert heat.
But he also acknowledged grimly that still-ambiguous intelligence reports of Iraqi commanders distributing chemical weapons to their troops are being taken very seriously. "It's a threat we're concerned with," Powell said. "I treat it as a capability that is there to be used."
The prospect of chemical war has been high on the minds of U.S. military planners for more than a decade, and rapid-deployment units like those dispatched to the Saudi desert have practiced poison-gas scenarios in war games in the Mojave Desert and in Egypt.
Such operations have become more intensive with growing concern about an Iranian or Iraqi threat. And amid heat, sand and other desert hardships, they represent the best rehearsal for current operations.
But periodic assessments by government investigators and intelligence officials repeatedly have concluded that the devastating properties of chemicals as arms still leave American forces threatened. Indeed, midway through the U.S. chemical defenses buildup, the General Accounting Office concluded bluntly in 1986 that American defenses were inadequate.
Among those the government auditors found to be particularly at risk: Navy ships at sea and command posts on the ground--and the rapid-deployment troops like the 82nd Airborne, operating in the open with only light equipment.
Military officials said Wednesday that each of the U.S. soldiers dispatched to the Middle East is carrying a Mark I combat kit containing atropine, an injectable common drug that serves as an antidote to the effects of nerve gas--perhaps Hussein's most potent threat.
The needle-ready kit, worn strapped tight across the thigh, is designed to provide emergency aid to a soldier who comes under surprise nerve gas attack. A hard slap to the thigh sends atropine into the victim's system, serving as a muscle relaxant.
They also carry so-called MOPP kits--the heavy charcoal-lined suits whose mask and head-to-toe cover provide the only guarantee of safety against a chemical attack. An acronym for military operational personnel protection, MOPP suits are "hot as blazes" in even temperate heat, according to former a soldier who has worn them.
"If you had to wear one in a desert situation," the former soldier said, "I don't think you could last more than an hour."
According to military sources, the "ready brigade" of some 4,000 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne also includes a special company designed to combat the effects of chemical war. The unit carries special devices to detect the presence of poison gases and would seek to decontaminate men and their equipment.