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 Friday, 24 January, 2003, 22:36 GMT
Iraq 'ready for chemical warfare'
Protective clothing
The suits reportedly came from Eastern Europe

An Iraqi opposition group says elite troops in Iraq have been issued with protective suits and equipment to defend themselves against chemical weapons.

The Iraqi National Coalition says the information comes from supporters and army officers in Iraq.

Friday prayers in Iraq
Saddam "is considering using chemical weapons on his people"
Several other Iraqi opposition groups have described these charges as "credible".

The allegations come amid a flurry of claims ahead of Monday's report by Hans Blix, the United Nations' chief weapons inspector, to the UN Security Council.

The Iraqi National Coalition maintains this new equipment has been handed out to Saddam Hussein's most trusted forces - including the Republican Guard and the Special Republican Guard.

It says it came from Eastern European states and was shipped into Iraq through neighbouring countries.

The group says this is a sign that Iraq may be prepared to use chemical weapons if it finds itself at war against United States-led forces.

Iraqi opposition

The Iraqi National Coalition - an umbrella group of five Iraqi opposition organisations - is one of the more credible of the many Iraqi opposition groups.

Set up in 1999, it says its membership includes a number of military officers from both inside Iraq and in exile.

Unlike many groups, it is believed to have good contacts within Iraq itself.

Its leader, former Brigadier General Tawfik al-Yassiri, was involved in the Shi'ite uprising in southern Iraq in 1991 and is generally well regarded.

Anti-war protesters
Some in the anti-war lobby say the accusations come at a convenient time
Several other well-established groups - including the Iran-based Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, SCIRI, and al-Daawa, a radical Shi'ite group responsible for violent attacks against the Iraqi Government in the past - say they find the new allegations "credible".

They say their contacts within the country also report signs that Saddam Hussein is readying his forces for chemical warfare.

Dr Hamid al-Bayati, SCIRI's London representative, said his group received documents suggesting Iraqi forces should be ready for chemical warfare because the US had the capability to attack Iraq with chemical weapons.

SCIRI - like the Iraqi National Coalition - interpreted such statements to mean that the Iraqi president could be willing to use chemical weapons himself.

Al-Daawa's London representative, Haider Abbas, said his group was checking new reports from its own contacts inside Iraq that Baghdad might even be considering using chemical weapons against its own people.

There is no independent confirmation of such allegations.

Build-up

Certainly, both sides in this potential war appear to be gearing themselves up for the possible use of chemical weapons.

No-one will find out the truth until after Saddam Hussein has gone. And then some people may end up with egg on their faces

Iraqi opposition figure
But it is far from clear who might use them, against whom, and in what circumstances.

Meanwhile, the Western anti-war lobby have rejected the latest allegations as propaganda.

Some British MPs who are opposed to the war have pointed out that the revelations come at an extremely convenient time.

British and American governments are presently seeking to persuade a seemingly increasingly reluctant world that a war against Iraq is justified, and only days before UN weapons inspectors are due to report to the Security Council.

Certainly, US pressure on Saddam Hussein is building up ahead of Monday's Security Council meeting, with Washington stepping up its allegations about his current actions and possible future intentions.

Opposition's agenda

Iraqi opposition groups, too, have their own agenda.

They compete with each other for prestige - and for influence with the US.

And most of them make no secret of the fact that they would like to see a US-led war against Baghdad launched as soon as possible.

Under such circumstances the real truth may be difficult to establish.

As one independent exiled Iraqi opposition figure put it: "Most Iraqis in opposition have no doubt that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction and that he would be willing to use them."

"But others maintain this is simply propaganda from the Americans and the Iraqi opposition. No-one will find out the truth until after Saddam Hussein has gone. And then some people may end up with egg on their faces," he added.

  WATCH/LISTEN
  ON THIS STORY
  The BBC's Gordon Corera
"According to the documents... the drugs and suits have been smuggled in"
  The BBC's Gordon Correra and Rageh Omar
discuss the discovery of the chemical warfare documents

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