DHAHRAN, SAUDI ARABIA, AUG. 30 -- Saudi Arabia's King Fahd has ordered the government to purchase gas masks for every Saudi citizen and foreigner living in the country in case Iraq resorts to chemical warfare, Saudi newspapers reported today.
The decision reflects the growing apprehension among Saudis about the implications of war breaking out between Iraq and the United States and its allies over the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait.
Rumors and unofficial, free-lance leaflets have been wildly circulating here about the threat of chemical warfare and its possible effects on the population, as a kind of chemical-warfare hysteria spreads among many Saudi residents.
But until today, the government had not taken any action to calm Saudi fears or prepare for the possible Iraqi use of chemical weapons.
The civil defense director, Gen. Hashem Abdulrahman, was quoted in the official English-language Riyadh Daily today as saying that Fahd had ordered the government to import masks for the entire populaton -- 7 million Saudis and 5 million foreigners.
Another Civil Defense officer was quoted as saying the danger of a chemical attack had been exaggerated and that "there is no need to panic."
That officer, Col. Masood Saad Zineifar, told Saudis that while chemical weapons are dangerous, their impact would likely be lessened in the Saudi heat because the high temperatures would help evaporate the gases.
He also sought to assure Saudis that the chances of Iraq using chemical weapons successfully are small because Saudi air defenses are capable of intercepting Iraqi jets or missiles that might be used.
U.S. military officers seem to doubt that Iraq has the capability to use missiles to deliver chemical warheads, and they express confidence that American and Saudi air defenses can cope with any Iraqi air attack. Nonetheless, all American soldiers have been issued protective gear, including a mask, suit and gloves and a needle to self-inject the antidote, atropine, in case nerve gas is used.