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There's been a lot of loose talk recently about Iraq's nuclear capability, but nary a word has been uttered about the only real nuclear arsenal in the Persian Gulf -- America's.

There are more than 100 B-61 nuclear bombs, deliverable by F-111 jets, stockpiled just 70 minutes' flight time from Baghdad at the U.S. Incirlik air base in southern Turkey. In addition, the U.S. Navy has some 25 nuclear-armed ships and submarines ready in the region. Four aircraft carriers store nuclear bombs for attack aircraft. And 11 surface warships and a half-dozen nuclear-powered attack submarines are armed with Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missiles.

In all, close to 500 naval nuclear weapons are aboard the mobilized U.S. armada.

What are U.S. nuclear weapons doing in the Middle East? U.S. military planners have gone on record to assert that the United States would not and, from a purely pragmatic point of view, need not use nuclear weapons in a war over Kuwait. The conventional forces mobilized to the region, they maintain, will provide a credible offensive force to destroy all the necessary targets in a war against Iraq.

However, this widespread military assessment that nuclear weapons are unnecessary has not been translated into a definitive policy statement, and nowhere has there been a flat-out rejection by President Bush or Defense Secretary Dick Cheney of any use of nuclear weapons. Thus, there remains the possibility that if the conventional force proves inadequate in a showdown, nuclear weapons could come under consideration.

Indeed, in October, then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher responded to a report in the Observer newspaper that British troops in the gulf had been given the go-ahead to use nuclear weapons to respond to an Iraqi chemical attack. Thatcher stated she "knew of no authority" for the report, but neither did she deny the option. "You'd have to consider at the time, if chemical weapons were used against us, precisely what our reply should be," she said.

Various top administration officials have used similar language to describe American options. "If we have to fight a war, we're going to fight it with all we have," declared Defense Undersecretary Paul Wolfowitz. And Cheney has spoken of our "wide range of military capabilities that will let us respond with overwhelming force."

While no one in Washington interprets such statements as nuclear threats, that doesn't mean that Iraq dismisses the option so cavalierly. And that, of course, is the point of the U.S. nuclear ambiguity: to keep Saddam guessing.

But what if Saddam guesses wrong? What if, in the midst of an all-out conventional war, he concludes that the U.S. nuclear option will be exercised, even if only as a last resort, and he therefore unleashes a massive chemical assault against American troops -- as Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz has promised will happen if nuclear weapons are used?

The consequences of such an action -- an action made more possible by the mere presence of our nuclear weapons in the gulf -- are too horrible to contemplate.

The fact is, nuclear weapons are "passing through" during this crisis for the simple reason that it is standard operating procedure. The nuclear bombs in Turkey didn't arrive yesterday; they have been there for 30 years as part of NATO's nuclear strategy against the Soviet Union. The aircraft carriers have been nuclear-armed for Soviet conflict since the 1950s, and surface warships have carried nuclear missiles since 1962.

When conflict with the Soviet Union lurked as an uncertainty behind every crisis, such nuclear deployments were justified as an insurance policy to deter, or respond to, an attack by another nuclear superpower. Yet here they are in the post-Cold War era, positioned not against a Soviet threat, but against a non-nuclear (albeit threshold-nuclear) power in the Middle East.

To be fair, the military is struggling to redefine its role in this new era. But if the Pentagon is so accustomed to having nuclear weapons at its disposal that 500 warheads can just pass through the storm in the Middle East like a Mr. Magoo character, then the danger exists that such antiquated habits will be rationalized into new policies. Shipping nuclear weapons around the world, and introducing them into every regional crisis, could create new standard operating procedures and be a temptation for a new nuclear dogma for the Third World.

If, on the other hand, our nuclear weapons are actually intended as a deterrent to Iraq, then this implies that we could use them. This is a horrible possibility, and it would be a disaster of unimaginable proportions.

Any short-term military gains of such an action -- or even the threat of such -- would be far outweighed by the political fallout, including the probable rupturing of the coalition of Western and Arab nations arrayed against Iraq. It would also cripple our nuclear non-proliferation efforts by serving as a powerful signal to the Third World that development of nuclear arsenals is in their own interest.

If our nuclear weapons are not intended as a deterrent to Iraq, but are merely a meaningless vestige of Cold War policy, as some officials suggest, then we are foolish to put them in harm's way in a region dominated by a leader whom President Bush equates with Hitler. They would be safer back home, and so would the world.

WILLIAM ARKIN is the author of numerous books on nuclear weapons and military affairs, the latest of which is 'Encyclopedia of the U.S. Military' (Harper & Row). He is on the board of editors of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and is director of the Nuclear Unit of Greenpeace.

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