March 26, 2003 | WebMemo on Middle East
There is little debate as to whether Saddam Hussein has chemical weapons. This was underscored when coalition forces recently discovered 3,000 chemical suits in a Nasiriyah hospital. The real question is whether or not Saddam will use these weapons of horror. As coalition forces close in on Baghdad, the probability of such an attack could be increasing.
Saddam probably realizes that his conventional forces do not stand a chance against the coalition, which will be an incentive to use chemical weapons. Before using them, however, he must decide whether such an attack would advance his primary objective, to stay in power. The way Saddam uses these weapons will largely depend on his strategy. The likelihood is that he will employ a two-pronged approach: engaging in a war of attrition while simultaneously using the media to undermine public support for the war.
Chemical weapons could be central to his plans. If Saddam believes that he can slow, or even stop, coalition forces by attacking them with chemical weapons, then he may attempt to do so very soon. If this is the case, then reports of certain points around Baghdad where commanders on the ground have the green light to attack with chemicals are likely accurate. He may also use a chemical attack to disrupt supply lines, which may be more vulnerable then front line troops.
Yet, Saddam must know that coalition forces are fully prepared to withstand a chemical attack. Furthermore, such an attack, whether it caused significant casualties or not, would greatly alter the disposition of coalition forces. Not only would it motivate the already committed troops, but also it would cause military leaders to apply greater amounts of force with less deference to collateral damage. This would all but dismiss Saddam's chances of turning this into a war of attrition, in which he could attempt exploit America's reputation for not being able to take casualties.
There are various scenarios in which Saddam may use his chemical weapons as part of a public relations campaign. He may use them in an attempt to increase support in the Arab world. A chemical attack could be used by Saddam's propaganda machine as evidence that he does not fear the coalition, that the Americans cannot deter him and that he remains defiant and is indeed winning the war.
Alternatively, he could attack Iraq's civilian population and blame it on American forces. Media outlets such as Iraqi TV and al Jazeera would beam the images of gassed women and children with reports from the Iraqi government blaming U.S. forces for using weapons of mass destruction against defenseless Iraqi civilians. However, such a tactic could prove risky for Saddam. Although he may gain some support in the Arab Street, he would likely undermine any support he might have in the larger international community.
Crossing the chemical threshold is a serious escalation of violence regardless of the motivation. This escalation will include an appropriate response from allied forces. The bottom line is that Saddam is not stupid, and he will not start showering the desert with VX gas unless it fits into his overall strategy. What America can be sure of is that Saddam does have deadly chemicals and that he will not hesitate to use them, as he has before, if he believes that it will advance his objectives. What is also certain, however is that their use will not alter the outcome of the conflict in Iraq. Coalition forces will be prepared for any and all contingencies they face.