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Training for dangers of war in Iraq

Saddam Hussein’s arsenal of chemical and biological weapons has spurred the military, and journalists, to learn how to react to an Iraqi attack. By Preston Mendenhall
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When U.N. weapons inspectors decamped from Iraq in 1998, they reported to the Security Council that they could not account for 15 missile warheads filled with biological agents, in addition to thousands of chemical weapons in Saddam Hussein’s arsenal. What Baghdad could do with these means of mass destruction has the U.S. military — and journalists — stepping up their preparations for a war in Iraq.

THE U.S. WAR in Afghanistan was a wake-up call for media companies, which saw 10 journalists killed in the first months of the conflict. It’s debatable whether the reporters could have prevented their own deaths, but the dangers of reporting on the war on terrorism spurred editors to send employees on “hostile environment” training courses run by former military officers schooled in field combat.

While that training concentrated on vitals like combat first aid and weapons knowledge, the pending conflict in Iraq has introduced a host of new dangers, notably exposure to the chemical and biological weapons Saddam counts among his arsenal.

If threatened by a U.S.-led invasion to oust him from power, military planners think Saddam might let loose a barrage of such weapons, in a deadly last attack on American forces.

Accordingly, the U.S. military is focusing on its Nuclear Biological Chemical Combat Readiness Evaluation Program, which teaches troops to defend themselves against such attacks. In Kuwait, the U.S. military maintains Camp Doha, where prepositioned equipment allows troops rotating through the region to train in realistic combat conditions, wearing gear designed to protect against chemical and biological weapons attacks.


At a conference center south of London, journalists, too, are lumbering around in chemical resistant suits. The rolling hills of the English countryside are in stark contrast to the Kuwaiti desert, but the message to reporters and troops is the same: Chemical and biological weapons are fast-acting, brutal agents of war — and steps taken in the first moments of contamination can greatly increase your chances of survival.

But experts say even the best preventative measures might not be a good enough defense.

“Not to be too grim, but it’s unlikely you’ll make it through it without problems,” said a battle-hardened former member of the British special forces, in a recent class run by a hostile environment training firm.

One of the most difficult aspects of preparing for an attack is knowing when you are under attack. Chemical and biological weapons can be delivered through traditional rocket arsenals, so soldiers, journalists and civilians in the theater of war may find themselves scrambling to take cover from an artillery threat — only to be faced with chemical and biological fallout.

There are some telltale signs of contamination, but such weapons are often invisible, odorless and tasteless. In some cases, a bitter almond or grassy taste in the throat, or outward signs of mustard gas fallout, will alert people to take defensive action. Low-flying aircraft could also indicate a chemical or biological weapons attack.


Even then, it may be too late to implement the “9-second rule,” the time you have to hold your breath and don a gas mask and respirator before serious internal exposure occurs.

With a limit on how much soldiers and reporters can carry in the field, a supply of chemical suits, thick rubber gloves and boots, decontamination pads, spare canister filters and antidotes will run out. For that reason, the U.S. military is expected to set up camps with extensive decontaminating facilities to neutralize the effects of chemical and biological weapons as quickly as possible.

That’s why experts say one of the safest places to cover a war with chemical agents is near a U.S. military treatment facility.

“But, in general, if chemical and biological weapons are being used you don’t want to be anywhere near them,” a training course instructor said.

Preston Mendenhall is’s international editor.