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American Support Grows for Use of Nuclear Arms : Weapons: Heavy U.S. losses could boost pressure on Bush. Opponents warn of a wide backlash.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Should the United States use nuclear weapons in the Persian Gulf War?

Although the Bush Administration says it has no plans to do so, the possibility remains very real for many Americans.

New Gallup polls last week found 45% of Americans would favor the use of nuclear weapons “if it might save the lives of U.S. troops.” Three weeks earlier, before the war began, only about half that proportion--24%--favored using nuclear weapons. About 72% were opposed.

The message is clear: If American losses were to mount into the thousands, and Iraq were to use chemical or nuclear weapons, President Bush would come under pressure to drop a nuclear bomb on Baghdad--or use smaller, tactical nuclear weapons--to save lives and shorten the war.

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Increasing numbers of conservatives have been pushing that approach.

Former Texas Gov. John B. Connally, who fears that U.S. casualties in the Persian Gulf eventually could top 50,000, believes the United States should use nuclear weapons to shorten the war. “That’s a cruel thing to say, but that’s the most merciful thing to say,” he said.

And Gen. Frederick J. Kroesen, an infantry veteran of three wars, recommended similar action in a recent article in Army Magazine.

“Tactical nuclear weapons--short-range, low-yield weapons--have a battlefield utility unmatched by any other form of firepower,” he wrote. “Employment is not an automatic trigger for an international nuclear holocaust.”

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To some, a bold and decisive move is tempting. Advocates cite the 1945 decision of then-President Harry S. Truman to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, saving hundreds of thousands of American lives that probably would have been lost had Japan been invaded. Japan surrendered four days after the first atomic explosion.

And for years--indeed, virtually throughout the Cold War--the United States was prepared to use nuclear weapons against Soviet troops if Moscow launched an attack against Western Europe. So, some reason, why not against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in a Middle East desert if the war drags out?

But opponents of using nuclear weapons argue that the issue is far more complex.

If Washington were to use nuclear weapons in the Gulf, they argue, it would shatter the nuclear taboo that has existed since the A-bombs were dropped on Japan--and most likely spark a worldwide backlash that could make the United States a global villain for generations to come.

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Countries that already have nuclear weapons would place those weapons on higher alert status, increasing the risk of accidental use and heightening the danger that their deliberate use would be easier in times of crisis.

The U.S. action also might start a global nuclear-arms race as smaller nations undertook crash efforts to build--or steal--nuclear weapons as protection, accelerating nuclear proliferation and substantially increasing the danger of nuclear conflicts among have-not nations.

“The enormous political costs--domestic and international--would far exceed the benefits,” said Harvard University professor Joseph Nye Jr., an expert on international relations and science.

Bruce Blair, a nuclear weapons specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C, agreed. “The loss to our long-term security would vastly outweigh the short-term gain,” he said.

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There are practical as well as academic reasons against U.S. use of nuclear weapons in the Persian Gulf.

Since 1978, it has been U.S. policy not to use nuclear weapons against any country that does not have them and has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which seeks to prevent the spread of the weapons. Since Iraq is such a country, it technically is off limits.

Iraq’s nuclear reactor has enough enriched uranium fuel to fashion a crude nuclear device in about six months. Hussein has threatened to use nuclear as well as chemical weapons against Israel.

Former President Jimmy Carter told an Emory University audience last week that “it would be one of the most stupid things that anyone ever did: to drop one atomic bomb--and not have any more--on a country like Israel that has 85 atomic weapons, or on the United States, which has 8,000 (tactical) atomic weapons.”

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Israel is believed to have enough material to fabricate about 100 nuclear weapons within days.

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, in a television interview Saturday, said Hussein may have been deterred from launching chemical weapons toward Israel by the possibility that Israel would retaliate with “unconventional weapons.”

“I assume he knows that if he were to resort to chemical weapons,” Cheney said, “that would be an escalation to weapons of mass destruction and that the possibility would then exist, certainly with respect to the Israelis, for example, that they might retaliate with unconventional weapons as well.”

Although Cheney did not specify nuclear weapons, that was his clear implication. “I have no idea” whether Israel would use tactical nuclear weapons, Cheney continued. “That’s a decision that the Israelis would have to make, but I would think that he (Hussein) has to be cautious in terms of how he proceeds in his attacks against Israel.”

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Cheney was later asked whether the United States would use nuclear weapons in the war against Iraq.

“We don’t rule options in or out. . . . We’ve got a wide spectrum of capabilities. The President decides how we respond to various and sundry events, and we don’t speculate.”

Although U.S. forces have no nuclear weapons in Saudi Arabia, the United States has about 1,000 nuclear bombs and warheads in the region, according to Greenpeace. Most of them are aboard ships, but an estimated 300 bombs and artillery shells are stored in Turkey.

Vice President Dan Quayle, interviewed by CNN, said Saturday he could not imagine that President Bush would order the use of chemical or nuclear weapons against Iraq “under any circumstance,” even in response to Iraq’s use of unconventional weapons.

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“You never rule any options out,” Quayle said. “But I can’t imagine (Bush) doing it. . . . “

Asked to explain why the U.S. use of chemical or nuclear weapons is so implausible, Quayle responded: “political cost, moral cost and the fact that you have the conventional superiority and the conventional capability to do the job.”

In an earlier statement, however, Cheney struck a slightly harder note, warning that “were Saddam Hussein foolish enough to use weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. response would be absolutely overwhelming and it would be devastating.”

Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of U.S. forces in Operation Desert Storm, was even more blunt: “If Saddam Hussein chooses to use weapons of mass destruction, then the rules of this campaign will probably change--and I think that’s as it should be,” he said last week.

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There are several ways in which the United States might use nuclear weapons:

* It could detonate a nuclear weapon as a warning if Iraq used chemical weapons. Such a move would signal U.S. willingness to escalate the conflict radically unless such attacks stopped. Allied war plans in Europe in recent years have called for such a nuclear “demonstration” blast if a Soviet conventional invasion threatened to overwhelm NATO defenses, or if the Soviets used chemical or nuclear weapons.

* Washington could launch a strategic nuclear strike on Baghdad designed to wipe out Saddam Hussein and his aides in an effort to end the war more quickly and decimate the country’s ability to continue the war.

U.S. forces could use tactical nuclear bombs and artillery on key Iraqi ground targets, such as division headquarters and troop concentrations. At least 100 such targets have been identified, U.S. officials say.

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However, critics contend that such actions would be out of proportion to the danger posed by the use of chemical weapons by Iraq. U.S. troops using protective gear would be only marginally affected by poison gas attacks, according to Harvard’s Nye.

And opponents argue that a strategic nuclear strike on Baghdad might not end the war but probably would split the coalition, driving out the Arab members and sparking fierce terrorist attacks.

As for targeting Iraqi military headquarters and troop concentrations, University of Maryland Prof. Catherine M. Kelleher, a specialist in deployment of tactical weapons, doubts the value of using nuclear weapons even in the sparsely populated desert.

To Kelleher and some other analysts, the day of the tactical nuclear weapon is virtually over. Most are being withdrawn from Europe, both because of the Soviet pullout and because after 35 years of debate, they are seen as virtually useless.

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“The ‘culture’ is different now,” Kelleher said. “Their symbolic value against the Soviets has gone,” and many military strategists believe that nuclear weapons “would end up hurting your own forces more than conventional munitions,” she said.

“Unless you go to a neutron weapon, you can’t do much to limit the secondary effects of radiation and fallout, which makes it unsafe for your own troops,” she added.

“It’s like poison gas--you can’t control the way the wind will blow it. That’s why chemical weapons aren’t useful--not because of big moral reasons.”

Indeed, even the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has been backing away from the use of tactical nuclear weapons.

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“If we’ve arrived at this point for Europe, why would using nuclear weapons be justifiable in the Persian Gulf?” Kelleher asked. “Is there to be one rule for the Western world and one for the Third World?

“I don’t think President Bush will want to begin his ‘new world order’ by using nuclear weapons for the first time since Hiroshima on Arabs,” she said.

Meanwhile, anti-nuclear activists like Greenpeace’s William M. Arkin want the Administration to declare publicly now that it will not use nuclear weapons in the Persian Gulf so that Saddam Hussein cannot argue that he is being threatened by them.

But the Administration maintains that an unequivocal statement would diminish the deterrent effect of the weapons’ presence.

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“We have never forsworn nuclear use in the past,” one official explained, “and if we did so now, we’d lock ourselves into making the same statement in every future crisis.”

Times staff writers Melissa Healy and John Broder contributed to this article.


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