Czech military unit to face real dangers as U.S. contemplates war on Iraq

Czech anti-chemical unit, photo CTK

A Czech military unit for protecting troops against chemical and biological attacks this week started transferring personnel and equipment to a base in Kuwait, to support the U.S.-led military campaign in the region. The unit has already seen combat experience and includes about 350 specialists and support staff. But why does the unit enjoy such a high reputation among foreign armies, and what exactly will it be doing there? Rob Cameron reports.

Czech anti-chemical unit,  photo CTK
The anti-chemical unit, based in the north-eastern town of Liberec, last saw combat in the 1991 Gulf War, when it was deployed to provide advance warning of a possible chemical attack by Iraqi forces and help deal with the consequences. The U.S. military relied heavily on the unit during the Gulf War, cementing a reputation which was already strong during the Cold War, when Czechoslovakia and the United States were still sworn enemies. Jan Gadzik covers military matters for the daily Mlada Fronta Dnes.

"The armies of the Warsaw Pact specialised in different areas. Czechoslovakia specialised in two things: the production of armoured personnel carriers and other heavy equipment, and protection against chemical, bacterial and biological weapons. They had a superb reputation, superb expertise, and superb equipment. Thankfully, after the fall of Communism, the new military elite recognised that, and the unit's reputation remains excellent to this day."

The unit is being deployed in Kuwait amid increasing signs that the United States is preparing to attack Iraq, which is thought to posses both chemical and biological weapons. But in the wake of September 11, the U.S. believes an attack could come from anywhere, as Jan Gazdik explains.

Czech anti-chemical unit,  photo CTK
"The official line is that they'll be protecting the U.S. command base near Kuwait City, but I have to say I'm rather sceptical. I've obtained information suggesting that their real mandate will be to act as a kind of rapid reaction force, should there be a chemical attack in any of 14 countries in the region. If there is an attack - and it could be a terrorist attack on a chemical factory for example - they'll be sent out immediately from Kuwait City."

Last weekend Britain's Observer newspaper reported that Prime Minister Tony Blair will travel to Washington in April to discuss military action against Iraq with President Bush. The British government refuses to give too many details of the meeting, but did confirm that it will be to finalise phase two of the U.S. military campaign in the region, and that action against Iraq would be at the top of the agenda. If that attack does take place, the Liberec unit faces very real dangers.