Pentagon Moves Up Inoculation Timetable
By Bradley Graham
The program had been due to start this summer, following a decision in December by Defense Secretary William S. Cohen to launch what is the first routine inoculation of U.S. forces against a germ warfare agent. Defense officials had said they needed six months or so to test a huge vaccine stockpile in Michigan, develop an electronic record-keeping system for tracking inoculated troops and complete an independent review of related health and safety issues.
But concerns about the Iraqi germ warfare threat prompted Gen. Anthony Zinni, who oversees U.S. forces in the gulf region, to request faster action. The Army general responsible for administering the program, Lt. Gen. Ronald Blanck, told reporters yesterday that all the conditions set by Cohen to ensure the safe and orderly delivery of the shots had been met.
About 36,000 U.S. troops remain poised to strike Iraq in the event it reneges on renewed pledges to allow United Nations inspectors unfettered access to suspected weapons sites. An aide to Zinni said the commander's concern about an anthrax attack had stemmed not from any new information indicating Iraq's readiness to unleash the deadly agent, but out of a desire "just to be prudent."
Based on information gathered by U.N. weapons inspectors, Iraq is known to have produced at least 2,100 gallons of anthrax and is suspected by U.N. specialists of having made as much as three times that amount. Iraq also has admitted loading biological agents on 25 Scud-type missiles, but U.N. inspectors have been unable to confirm the destruction of any of these warheads.
Nevertheless, senior U.S. military planners said they see little probability that Iraq would use biological or chemical agents against U.S. forces in the current conflict. They said using such weapons would undermine Iraq's strategy of trying to split international opinion and isolate the United States. A biological or chemical attack would also expose Iraq to massive retaliation, U.S. officials have warned.
"After careful review, I have concluded that vaccination against anthrax is a safe, prudent force protection measure," Cohen said in a statement. The statement said Cohen and Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had launched the vaccination program on Monday by getting shots themselves.
Because the vaccine requires six doses over 18 months to take full effect, yesterday's action will provide less than complete protection for American forces in the near term. But Blanck, who is the Army's surgeon general, said "a substantial degree of protection" can be achieved in the first month or so of doses.
Further, exposure to anthrax, which attacks the respiratory system and is usually fatal within days, can be treated with antibiotics if the bacteria are detected before symptoms appear. The Pentagon has taken the precaution of shipping large stockpiles of antibiotics to the gulf region.
Signaling a continued readiness to attack Iraq, President Clinton said yesterday that the Baghdad government "should be under no illusion" about the meaning of a new U.N. Security Council resolution -- approved Monday -- warning of the "severest consequences" if U.N. weapons inspectors again are blocked. "It provides authority to act," Clinton said.
The United States has massed about 30 warships and more than 300 military aircraft in the gulf region, and Zinni said yesterday he has no timetable for withdrawing them.
"I think we need to look at the first inspections and see the results, and then I would be comfortable with making a recommendation," the gulf commander said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The general predicted that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would "continue to test us and the international community." He urged senators to support a tightening of maritime interdiction efforts to choke what U.S. officials say has been a significant increase in the smuggling of oil from Iraq and the importation of contraband.
"That's the key in the long term for reducing his power and reducing the risk he poses to his own people," Zinni said.
The illicit oil exports are of particular concern because they help finance Iraq's weapons programs, said a senior officer on Zinni's staff. The oil is transported in small tankers that pass through Iranian coastal waters, evading U.S. and allied patrol ships. U.S. commanders are looking at assigning additional ships to bolster the interdiction effort.
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