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The fuzzy ethics of nonlethal weapons

Pentagon wants to use riot-control agents in Iraq, but critics say it's chemical warfare.

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As the world waits to hear more from UN weapons inspectors about Iraq's potential for producing chemical weapons, the US itself is pondering the use of chemicals in any conflict there.

Defense officials would like to be able to use nonlethal chemicals to take the fight out of Iraqi soldiers who may be holed up in caves or buildings or mixed in with innocent civilians. But as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged in Congressional testimony the other day, the use of riot-control agents and other substances designed to incapacitate people without causing death or lasting injury violates international law - specifically, the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.

"In many instances, our forces are allowed to shoot somebody and kill them, but they're not allowed to use a nonlethal riot-control agent," Mr. Rumsfeld complained to lawmakers. Some find it ironic, if not incomprehensible, that under the Chemical Weapons Convention, civilian police forces may use chemicals to put down riots but military units may not fire them at enemy soldiers.

On its face, this would seem to be a problem that even arms-control advocates and those opposed to war would like to see rectified. Especially, as President Bush told religious broadcasters this week, because "Saddam Hussein is positioning his military forces within civilian populations in order to shield his military and blame coalition forces for civilian casualties that he has caused."

In an audio broadcast Tuesday, chief terrorist Osama bin Laden seemed to encourage Iraqi civilians to join the fight against a US-led invasion. Bin Laden spoke of "the importance of drawing the enemy into long, close, and tiring fighting, taking advantage of camouflaged positions in plains, farms, mountains, and cities." Hussein reportedly has armed one million Iraqi civilians with rifles and grenade launchers.

Such combat - at close quarters and with civilians and perhaps hostages part of the mix - could call for nonlethal chemical weapons to sort out the real "bad guys" from noncombatants, human shields, and those forced to take up arms.

But others see big problems. For one thing, US allies in the fight - and certainly many in the Arab world - would be opposed to anything that smacks of chemical warfare. "Special Forces no doubt have knockout gas to neutralize bunkers," says Stephen Baker, a retired US Navy rear admiral and senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information in Washington. "But my feeling is that the sensitivities are way too great to use [it]."

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