Weapons experts examine suspected chemical caches




By Mark Huband, Security Correspondent, in London

Financial Times, 8 April 2003

US weapons experts are examining barrels of chemical formula and a cache of missiles found at two sites in Iraq.

American forces were yesterday reported to have found 20 medium-range BM-21 missiles at a site near Baghdad airport. Western intelligence and military officials were unable to confirm a report from troops on the ground that the missiles contained weaponised sarin nerve gas.

Earlier, US troops near the town of al-Hindiyah found three 50-gallon and 11 25-gallon barrels which initial tests suggested may contain sarin, tabun and the blister agent lewisite.

US and UK officials have justified the campaign to overthrow the Iraqi regime on the grounds that it has failed to end its WMD programmes, and that it may provide WMD technology to terrorist groups.

Major Michael Hamlet of the US 101st Airborne Division, said experts would carry out further tests on the substances, discovered at a military camp in Abu Mahawish near the site of ancient Babylon.

“If tests from our experts confirm this, it would prove [President Saddam Hussein] has the weapons we have said he has all along. But right now we just don’t know,” he said.

US and UK forces now occupy territory in which 19 of Iraq’s alleged 40 WMD-related sites listed in CIA and UK intelligence reports are located. However, after 19 days of war the invading forces have so far offered no evidence to support their claims.

Moreover, without United Nations arms inspectors in the country, evidence provided by US officials under pressure to substantiate claims about WMD will be regarded with scepticism unless verified independently.

Referring to the discovery of barrels of chemicals, Major Ross Coffman, a US military spokesman, said yesterday: “Our detectors have indicated something. We’re talking about finding a site of possible WMD storage. This is an initial report, but it could be a smoking gun.” The barrels were discovered after a tip-off from an Iraqi army colonel.

US officials say that the thrust towards Baghdad and the overthrow of the regime have taken priority over the need to find the proof which might justify the war. However, Geoff Hoon, UK defence minister, yesterday told parliament: “As I have made clear, we will find weapons of mass destruction.”

But weapons experts drew a distinction between parts of the alleged WMD arsenal which had been weaponised, and chemicals which could have been discarded. “It doesn’t sound as though what has been found was ready for use,” said Garth Whitty, a former UN weapons inspector.


© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008.