U.S. projecting chemical weapons attack by elite Iraqi units

Monday, March 24, 2003

The U.S. military command is bracing for chemical weapons attacks by elite units of Iraq's Republican Guard.

U.S. officials said some of the elite units deployed around Baghdad have been equipped with chemical weapons and have established a command and control infrastructure for their use.

Officials reported the discovery of what they believe are two chemical weapons facilities in Iraq. The facilities were located in the Shi'ite-populated cities of Karbala and Najaf. They were believed to have been producing mustard gas.

"We have an Iraqi general officer, two Iraqi general officers that we have taken prisoner, and they are providing us with information," Lt. Gen. John Abizaid, deputy commander of the Combined Forces Command, told a news conference in Qatar.

Some units of the Republican Guard are also believed to have biological weapons as well, Middle East Newsline reported. Officials said the United States has engaged in a secret dialogue with the Iraqi military leadership to prevent the use of biological or chemical weapons.

"The potential for the use of weapons of mass destruction, it grows as we get closer to Baghdad," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said. "We've seen intelligence over months, over many months, that they have chemical and biological weapons, and that they have dispersed them, and that they are weaponized, and that, in one case at least, that the command in control arrangements have been established."

"One of the great dangers of the use of chemical and biological weapons is going to come when we confront that inner circle of Republican Guards that are around Baghdad," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said on Sunday. "It's one of our many remaining serious concerns."

Republican Guard units, officials said, have been moving toward Baghdad, backing away from advancing U.S. troops. They said the Republican Guard divisions are expected to dig in around Baghdad and Tikrit.

On Monday, U.S. Apache AH-64D helicopters struck Republican Guard units in the first major engagement with Saddam's elite armored units in a battle near Karbala, about 80 kilometers from Baghdad. The U.S. attack helicopters were said to have come under heavy Iraqi anti-aircraft fire from the Republican Guard's 2nd Armored Brigade during the three-hour battle. Iraq reported that two Apache helicopters were downed and their crews were captured.

Karbala is 80 kilometers south of Baghdad and U.S. officials expect allied ground forces will arrive in the Baghdad area by late Tuesday. They said U.S. and British aircraft have escalated their strikes on Iraqi command and control facilities and regime installations in Baghdad and Tikrit.

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