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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

Military Drops Cremation Policy

Protests scuttle a plan aimed at curbing the spread of chemical and biological agents.

February 16, 2003|Esther Schrader | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — After an outcry from veterans groups, the Pentagon has backed off on a proposal to cremate any U.S. troops killed by biological or chemical attacks in a war with Iraq rather than bringing their bodies home for burial, defense officials said.

The Pentagon has also opted against a proposal to bury in mass graves the corpses of U.S. troops that might be health hazards.

The proposals -- part of a review of military burial procedures that concluded this month -- were meant to prevent the spread of chemical or biological agents from contaminated bodies to people on the home front. But they raised concern among veterans groups.

"The Department of Defense recently reviewed the policy and determined that cremation was not an option," the Pentagon said in a statement Friday. "Cases involving contaminated remains will be handled with the dignity and respect accorded to all remains."

For decades, the Pentagon has gone to great lengths to recover for burial the body of every U.S. soldier, sailor and airman killed abroad.

But the threat from chemical or biological agents in a war with Iraq led to the airing of the proposals, defense officials said.

Those contacted by the Pentagon about the proposals include the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the group said Saturday.

"They told us that they needed to review the policy for safety reasons, and we understood, but we wanted to ensure that the dignity of every American fighter lost was preserved," said a senior member of the organization, who asked to remain anonymous.

U.S. intelligence officials believe that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime possesses chemical and biological agents, and the Pentagon is bracing for the possibility that his forces might use them against U.S. troops in a conflict.

Soldiers, sailors and airmen are being trained to respond to such attacks and are being outfitted with gear that would offer protection.

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