Post Correspondent

February 19, 2003 -- WASHINGTON - Saddam Hussein plans to use chemical weapons to create a ring of death around Baghdad to slow down a U.S. invasion and turn the city's residents into hostages, a former Iraqi scientist said yesterday.

Hussain al-Shahristani, ex-chief adviser to the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission, said at a conference in the Philippines that Saddam has hidden chemical and biological weapons in deep underground tunnel systems - to be unleashed in a last stand around Baghdad.

"There has been discussion within his circle to set up what they call a 'chemical belt' around Baghdad using his chemical weapons to entrap the residents inside," said al-Shahristani.

Al-Shahristani, who escaped Iraq in 1991 after being jailed for refusing to help develop weapons of mass destruction, said his information is recent and comes from former colleagues with whom he has been in contact.

Pentagon officials told The Post the scientist's claims are in line with U.S. intelligence on Saddam's intentions in the event of an invasion.

Top military officials have told Congress they believe that Saddam has a "scorched earth" strategy to fire artillery shells filled with VX nerve gas and sarin from inside Baghdad on approaching U.S. forces.

They also believe he likely will order his loyal troops to blow up oil wells, sabotage bridges and highways, and prevent the 4 million people of Baghdad from leaving in order to use them as human shields and blame any humanitarian disaster on the U.S. military.

Pentagon officials say war planners have been working hard on ways to prevent the use of chemical or biological agents in the event of war.

Al-Shahristani, addressing a forum on the Iraqi crisis, also said Saddam does not have the capability to deploy a nuclear weapon or fire weapons of mass destruction on distant countries.

But he said Iraq has a flourishing chemical and biological weapons program that can be used on invading U.S. forces and the Iraqi people.

"There's no way that they can find them, unless by pure accident," he said of U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq. "Saddam has mastered his concealment tactics."

He has appointed thousands of security officers and trained them well in hiding these weapons.

"These materials are hidden deep underground or in a tunnel system," al-Shahristani said.

Meanwhile, the buildup of U.S. forces around Iraq continued to intensify yesterday with new deployment orders to 28,000 troops, including the Army's 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment nicknamed the "Brave Rifles," a highly mobile combat unit that played a key role in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.