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WAR WITH IRAQ / PREPARED FOR ANYTHING

Hussein's Worst Weaponry Is a No-Show, So Far

After two days, there have been no chemical or germ attacks, no Scud launches. Their absence raises questions about Iraq's military state.

March 22, 2003|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Two days into the fighting, what is most remarkable about the war against Iraq may be what has not happened: no chemical or germ attacks, no Scud missile launches, no strikes on Israel.

Iraqi forces still might launch such attacks as American and British forces dash toward Baghdad for what could be a last bloody confrontation. Some might have been prevented by coalition forces, which have seized control of suspected missile launch sites in western Iraq to block attacks on Israel.

Saddam Hussein's regime has long insisted that it no longer has weapons of mass destruction, a claim U.S. officials reject. The fact that Hussein has not yet used any such weapons raises questions for officials and analysts about the condition of the military he has commanded for a quarter of a century. In the face of the onslaught, the loyalty of his forces may be crumbling and his chain of command may be broken.

"We're ready to have him do his worst," one U.S. official said. "We're still waiting."

U.S. military planners have been worrying about what Hussein could do since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The billions of dollars spent since then to develop antimissile systems and shield ground forces from chemical and biological attack are in part a result of the threat Iraq was believed to pose.

Since U.S. troops began pouring into the region last year, planners also have been trying to figure out how to prevent Iraqi forces from setting fire to the country's more than 1, 600 oil wells or from blowing up dams along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to block the advance.

Yet the Iraqi military's threat so far has not lived up to its potential.

Despite some erroneous reports on Thursday, the Iraqis apparently have not launched any of the banned Scud B missiles, which were their most damaging weapon during the 1991 Gulf War. Hussein apparently has fired no more than a dozen shorter-range missiles, although he was believed to have had hundreds in southern Iraq and was expected to lob many of them into U.S.-led forces in Kuwait.

Iraq has set fire to only a handful of oil wells and tampered with only three more, according to a U.S. official. In Kuwait 12 years ago, Iraqi forces lighted 700 oil fires, triggering environmental devastation.

Decreasing Opportunity

This time, there's no sign that Iraq has even tried to use a chemical or biological weapon or sought to blow up a dam.

Hussein may be losing his opportunity to use some of the weapons. U.S. Marine and British forces were advancing Friday on positions in southern Iraq where he has had short-range missiles.

And he appears to be losing the ability to threaten Israel as coalition forces have moved into the western desert area. One of Washington's greatest fears has been that Hussein would attack Israel in an effort to win support in the Arab world.

Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Friday that Special Forces had taken control of two airfields in the region.

Privately, U.S. officials said they feel they have control over all of the western region, from which Saddam fired 39 Scuds at Israel in 1991. The Special Forces "were in there earlier and in greater numbers than people knew, and they did a remarkable job," one official said.

Once U.S. forces have gained a foothold at an airport, they can bring in surveillance aircraft, such as the unmanned Predator, to keep a close eye on all parts of the area, experts said.

Israeli officials remain cautious, however. They said that although news of the coalition moves was heartening, the area is large, and some of the territory from which Hussein fired Scud missiles in 1991 does not seem to be fully under U.S. control.

At sundown Friday, Israel entered its first Sabbath since the start of the war. Radios were broadcasting on "silent frequencies" that sounded only for missile alerts, so that observant Jews who do not listen to radios during the Sabbath could leave them on and still learn of any impending danger. Israel was expected to re-evaluate the risk of attack after the weekend.

U.S. officials cautioned they do not believe that the threats posed by Hussein have all been eliminated. The military has planned for some time for the possibility that Hussein might hold on to chemical and biological weapons to make a last stand in Baghdad. Analysts say those weapons are more deadly against large concentrations of stationary troops than they are against troops who are moving and widely dispersed, as coalition forces are now.

Hussein might want to hold back his most frightening weapons until the final battle, they say, in hopes that worries about high casualties might force the United States to offer him a settlement.

Other Explanations

Yet there may be other explanations.

Some analysts have said Hussein's chemical arsenal, which was formidable in 1990, may be in poor shape, and perhaps unusable, after years of U.N. sanctions and inspections.

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