- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 17, 2002

The U.S. government has offered body suits to Kurdish leaders in the event Saddam Hussein drops nerve gas in northern Iraq, according to U.S. and Kurdish officials.

In meetings with Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Hoshyar Zebari, the director of international relations for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Pentagon and State Department officials offered to send the suits, which are designed to ward off chemical- and biological-weapons attacks, according to U.S. officials familiar with the talks this week.

"The Kurdish people have every reason to be concerned about their security," Barham Saleh, the prime minister of the Kurdistan regional government, told United Press International yesterday. "It is important to remember we suffered chemical attacks 14 years ago. The prospect of renewed genocide stares us in the face every waking moment."

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Saddam Hussein authorized his army to shell the Kurdish town of Halabja with mustard gas and nerve gas on April 16, 1988. The incident left at least 5,000 dead and thousands of others injured and diseased.

U.S. officials are concerned that the Iraqi leader may strike again, and this time with deadlier nerve gas acquired in the last three years when no international arms inspectors have been allowed in his country.

"They asked us originally for gas masks," one U.S. official told UPI. "But nerve agents, as opposed to mustard gas, is what [Saddam] is likely going to use this time. So gas masks won't cut it. They need biochemical body suits," he said.

The suits, which are used by the U.S. Army and are in stock in most high-danger U.S. embassies and consulates, are made of thin white Mylar material. They cover the entire body from head to toe in an airtight seal, but they limit one's mobility. "The problem is, it's very hard to fight in them," the U.S. official said.

U.S. officials said that Mr. Talabani and Mr. Zebari also requested anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, training for local police forces and satellite-telecommunications equipment, as well as antidotes for biological weapons, such as Cipro, the antibiotic drug used against anthrax.

Mr. Talabani offered his territory in the north for U.S. forces in meetings with U.S. officials this week, as reported in The Washington Times on Wednesday.

One U.S. official told UPI yesterday that the Bush administration has not yet formally decided to provide the Kurds with the requested anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, out of concern over the timing of such shipments. "If we give them stuff too soon, Saddam could use it as a pretext to launch an attack when we're not ready," the official said. But he added that if the weapons are delivered too late, several Kurdish fighters could be slaughtered.

On July 30, 2001, the Kurds inked a deal with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell that promised the United States would respond to attacks from Iraq "in a strong and sure manner at a time and place of our choosing." Since then, both Kurdish parties have sought a more precise security guarantee from the Bush administration. Kurdish representatives said the response to the request was positive, but did not elaborate further.

When Saddam attacked Erbil in Kurdish northern Iraq in 1996, President Clinton ordered attacks in the south several days later, effectively doing nothing to prevent the massacre.

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