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Bush Administration Vague With Respect to Retaliation

By Bradley Graham

As they prepare for the possibility that Iraq would unleash chemical or biological weapons against invading U.S. forces, Bush administration officials have remained deliberately vague about how the United States would respond. Officials have refused to rule anything out, including the use of nuclear weapons to counter or forestall the release of chemical or biological agents.

In reality, however, U.S. authorities face few clear-cut options, and a retaliatory strike with nuclear weapons would be especially problematic, according to current and former military officers who have dealt with the issue.

On the one hand, U.S. authorities could be expected to feel a strong desire to exact punishment and set an example in the interest of deterring a repeat attack by Iraq or the future use of nonconventional weapons by other adversaries. On the other hand, the United States would want to avoid a response that appeared excessive and that risked large numbers of civilian casualties or extensive damage to Iraqi facilities that might be helpful in reconstituting the government and the economy after the war.

A senior military officer involved in the war planning confirmed a report in the Los Angeles Times by defense analyst William Arkin that the range of possible retaliatory responses includes nuclear weapons. But the officer stressed that conventional bombs would be sufficient in a retaliatory strike. He suggested that the most likely response would involve intensified attacks on Iraqi leadership targets and those forces involved in firing chemical or biological weapons.

“If you want me to go get them with blast and steel and fire, I can do that without resorting to nuclear weapons,” the officer said. “The nuclear option is on the table not to meet a military need but a potential political one.”

In addition to threatening a severe military response, U.S. officials have taken other steps aimed at preventing a biological or chemical attack.