U.S. tests for possible chemical weapons

April 7, 2003, 5:33PM
Reuters News Service KARBALA, Iraq –

U.S. military officers said Monday initial tests on substances found in a central Iraqi town suggested the presence of banned chemical agents, but said they could turn out to be simple pesticides.

Maj. Michael Hamlet of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division said that initial investigations of 14 barrels found at a military training camp on Sunday revealed levels of nerve agents sarin and tabun and the blister agent lewisite.

He said the find could be the “smoking gun” which proved U.S. and British charges that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had been hiding banned weapons of mass destruction — the central plank of their case for military action to overthrow him.

But Gen. Benjamin Freakly, also of the 101st Airborne, said later that tests on substances at the camp and a separate agricultural site, both in the town of Albu Mahawish, could show they had a less sinister purpose.

“This could be either some kind of pesticide,” Freakly told CNN. “On the other hand it could be a chemical agent — not weaponized, a liquid agent that is in drums.”

A team of experts would carry out further tests as early as Tuesday on the substances, discovered in Albu Mahawish, on the Euphrates River between the central Iraqi cities of Kerbala and Hilla, site of ancient Babylon.

“If tests from our experts confirm this, this could be the smoking gun. It would prove (Saddam) has the weapons we have said he has all along,” Hamlet said. “But right now we just don’t know.”

The substances under investigation were found in three 55-gallon barrels and 11 25-gallon barrels, he said.

“They look like cocktails. They look like they’ve all got a bit of each in them,” said another officer.

Iraq is believed to have used sarin against Kurdish Iraqis in the 1980s.

The United States invaded Iraq on March 20 to overthrow Saddam and prevent him using banned chemical weapons. Many other members of the United Nations opposed the attack, saying U.N. inspectors should be given more time to disarm Iraq.

No chemical or biological weapons have yet been fired at U.S. troops in 19 days of fighting, even after advance forces entered Baghdad in recent days. Some American soldiers have even been ordered to discard their chemical protection suits.

National Public Radio, reporting what appeared to be a separate discovery from the one in Albu Mahawish, said U.S. forces found a weapons cache of around 20 medium-range missiles equipped with potent chemical weapons.

NPR said the rockets, BM-21 missiles, were equipped with sarin and mustard gas and were “ready to fire.”

It said the cache was discovered by Marines with the 101st Airborne Division, which was following up behind the Army after it seized Baghdad’s airport.

Officers from the 101st Division and the 3rd Infantry Division at the airport were unable to confirm the report. U.S. Central Command headquarters in Qatar had no immediate comment.

On Saturday, a U.S. officer said first tests of a suspicious white powder and liquid found on Friday in thousands of boxes south of Baghdad indicated it was not a chemical weapon.

Over the weekend, U.S. Marines in the central Iraqi town of Aziziya began digging up a suspected chemical weapons hiding place at a girl’s school.

“We have always expected that this regime has chemical weapons and also possesses the will and means to use it,” Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks told a news conference at Central Command in Qatar.

He said the U.S.-led forces’ advance inside the country had removed some of the means and its blizzard of leaflets and messages warning Iraqi commanders not to use weapons of mass destruction had removed much of the will.

There had also been strikes early on in the campaign, he added, against Iraqi missiles — such as al-Samouds — which could have delivered chemical or even biological weapons into neighboring countries.

“That work continues but there’s also still capability,” Brooks said.

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