WASHINGTON -- Imagine the heat of the Iraqi desert, then add the bulkiness of wearing five pairs of cotton sweat pants. For U.S. soldiers, fighting the enemy there while wearing a chemical protection suit may feel as uncomfortable.
U.S. troops wore the protective outfits during the 1991 Persian Gulf War because of concern that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein might arm Scud missiles with dangerous agents from his chemical weapons stash.
Eleven years later the concern remains as President Bush looks toward a possible new war with Iraq.
Known as a "MOPP" suit, for Mission Oriented Protective Posture, the bulky lifesavers consist of pants, a coat, rubber boots and gloves, a face mask and a hood -- all worn over regular combat fatigues. The suit has a layer of charcoal to absorb and neutralize any chemical or biological substances soldiers may be exposed to, and can be used for up to 30 days.
They can be stifling. When the Army demonstrated the suits under the heat of television lights this month, a sergeant wearing one collapsed from the platform into a row of chairs.
Just how effective they are under all circumstances is unclear. Iraq is known to possess powder needed to make "dusty" chemical weapons capable of penetrating the tiniest gaps in suits; whether it has those weapons is not known.
One old remedy for dusty weapons is to wear rain ponchos on top of the suits.
The Pentagon concluded several years ago that the suits were effective but had shortcomings, including weight and bulk that "degraded combat performance and made even simple tasks onerous." Development of new suits is under way.
The armed forces have about 4.5 million sets of protective gear, including 1.5 million of the latest version, known as the Joint Service Lightweight Integrated Suit Technology, or JSLIST.
They cost about $200 each, weigh just under six pounds and have a durable, water-repellent finish with an inner layer of carbon to absorb chemical agents, which Saddam is known to have used against Iran and Kurds in Iraq.
They're no fun. Body heat buildup inside the garment can lead to heat exhaustion in warm weather. The mask and hood interfere with seeing, hearing and speaking.
Rubber gloves restrict air circulation and limit the sense of touch and the ability to do delicate tasks. Plus, the Pentagon acknowledged, wearing the suit and all its components can cause claustrophobia or similar stress.
Trent Barton of Woodbridge, Va., said it was like wearing five pairs of sweats.
"It's very restrictive and it's extremely hard to move around," said Barton, who served in the 82nd Airborne Division in the Gulf War.
The military is using lessons learned from the Gulf War to develop the next generation of chemical warfare suits.
The bulky charcoal layer will be replaced with a "selectively permeable membrane" that is lighter and will block harmful substances, rather than absorb them. More perspiration will also be able to escape.
"It's technology in progress," said Capt. Ben Kuykendall, an Army spokesman.
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