WAR IN IRAQ: Search at Najaf yields no sign of chemical weapons




By Mark Huband, Security Correspondent

Financial Times, 25 March 2003

Department of Defense off-icials said yesterday that no evidence of chemical weapons production had been found at a facility close to the southern Iraqi town of Najaf occupied by US forces on Sunday.

Forces from the US 3rd Infantry Division occupied the 100-acre site. According to military officials, the site is surrounded by an electric fence and the buildings within it are camouflaged, raising suspicions that it was still in use. However, a Pentagon official said yesterday that the site had probably been abandoned some time ago.

Two military sites described in a CIA assessment last year as part of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programme are now in territory occupied by US and UK forces. Neither site – one at Nasiriya and the other at al-Khamisiya, both in the southern part of the country – has so far provided evidence of WMD production.

General Tommy Franks, the commander of US forces, said yesterday: “It’s a bit early for us to have any expectation of having found them . . . We’ll wait for the days ahead.”

Responding to the first report of the Najaf site’s alleged purpose, which appeared in the Jerusalem Post, a senior western intelligence officer said yesterday: “It’s been in the interests of the Israelis to play up a whole range of issues. A degree of healthy scepticism is very necessary.”

Iraq is thought by intelligence services to have dispersed its chemical weapons production among 16 sites, seven of which are around Baghdad.

Among the 2,000 Iraqi troops the US is now holding, several senior officers – in particular, two army generals – are being interrogated with the specific purpose of trying to establish a clearer picture of Iraq’s WMD arsenal.

Documents seized by US special forces who captured two airfields in western Iraq at the weekend are also being examined for leads on the WMD arsenal, a US military spokesman said.

The Najaf site did not figure in either the US or UK intelligence analyses of suspected WMD sites issued last year to bolster the case against President Saddam Hussein. Nor did United Nations weapons inspectors suspect or visit the site during their mission to unearth Iraq’s WMD arsenal.

Intelligence officers and military officials believe that Iraq has successfully hidden a substantial amount of its WMD arsenal and research, much of it buried and sealed. They are working on the basis that only the occupation of substantial parts of the country will give them the opportunity to prove that the WMD arsenal exists.

“I think we’ll find weapons of mass destruction once we have had an opportunity to occupy Baghdad, stabilise Iraq, talk to Iraqis that have participated in the hiding and the development of it,” said Lt Gen John Abizaid of US Central Command.

Even so, the challenge to coalition forces to find the evidence with which to justify the war to overthrow the regime is stark.

Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector, said in the early hours of the conflict: “The paradox is, if they don’t find something then you have sent 250,000 men to wage war in order to find nothing.”


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