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Iraq: U.S. Says It Has Found Possible Evidence Of Germ Warfare

After weeks of apparently fruitless searching, the United States says it has finally found possible evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. But any unilateral U.S. discovery is likely to be dogged by controversy, RFE/RL reports.

Washington, 8 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Defense Department says coalition forces in Iraq have discovered a suspected mobile germ warfare laboratory abandoned by the toppled government of Saddam Hussein.

The announcement at a Pentagon briefing yesterday was the first time since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq on 20 March that Washington has said it has evidence of prohibited weapons of mass destruction, the primary reason cited by the United States for going to war.

Stephen Cambone, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, told reporters that the mobile lab was discovered at a Kurdish checkpoint in Tall Kayf, northern Iraq, on 19 April, just prior to the fall of Baghdad.

"The coalition forces have come into possession of an Iraqi trailer, which is very similar to that which was described by Secretary of State [Colin Powell] in his presentation before the United Nations back in February," Cambone said.

He said U.S. forces are still conducting tests in Baghdad on the trailer, on which no germ agents have yet been found. The lab matches the description of a germ warfare trailer provided to Washington before the war by an Iraqi defector and other sources, Cambone said.

He stopped short of calling the discovery a "smoking gun" -- that is, concrete evidence of Iraqi wrongdoing. But he said the lab could have only one possible use.

"While some of the equipment on the trailer could have been used for purposes other than biological weapons agent production, U.S. and U.K. technical experts have concluded that the unit does not appear to perform any function beyond what the defector said it was for, which was the production of biological agents," Cambone said.

Aboard the lab was equipment that can be used to make biological weapons, which are microorganisms used to spread disease. Cambone said the trailer has a fermenter that could be used to make germ warfare agents and a system to capture exhaust gases.

The trailer, which may be dismantled as experts search for germ agents, was found on a transporter normally used for tanks, Cambone said.

"This vehicle has had a very caustic substance washed through it. Some call it ammonia. I do not know what the compound is. It has also been painted -- nice, green, military colors, apparently. And so, the testing is sort of taking place in that kind of an environment," he said.

If confirmed, the discovery could lend strong support to the prime reason the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush cited for going to war with Iraq: to destroy its alleged programs of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons.

A defense official said before Cambone's press conference that he and others "feel good" about the prospect that they have found solid evidence of an unconventional Iraqi weapons program. But they are being careful to cover all bases. The official noted that many questions will be asked if it is announced as evidence -- including "chain of custody" information on who has handled the truck and whether it might have been tampered with.

Indeed, the issue of credibility may surround any announcement of arms discoveries by Washington, which has refused to allow UN weapons inspectors back into Iraq.

Phyllis Bennis, an analyst at the Institute for Policy Studies, a think tank in Washington, says: "I think there's a very serious problem of credibility. It's for this reason, among others, that so many forces in and around the United Nations have been pushing for UN inspectors to go back in and finish the job."

Then there's the issue of questionable U.S. and British intelligence offered as reasons for going to war with Iraq.

Last September, in a major speech before the UN, Bush said the United States had evidence of Iraq's "continued appetite" for nuclear weapons. He said Iraq had tried to buy thousands of high-strength aluminum tubes to use in enriching uranium for bombs.

But four months later in January, the UN International Atomic Energy Agency said that after studying the matter, it believed the tubes were "not directly suitable" for uranium enrichment but were "consistent" with making ordinary artillery rockets. That finding meshed with Iraq's official explanation for the tubes.

Also, a British government "dossier" on alleged Iraqi wrongdoing released earlier this year later turned out, in an embarrassment to London, to be culled mostly from the popular media.

Bennis said the stakes are high for Washington to prove its case now that it controls Iraq, but warned that lingering questions may cast doubt on any U.S. discovery.

"The question of what the United States military finds is, of course, going to be questionable because there's such a high political stake -- forget about the military side -- in proving the long-disputed claim that the U.S. had made: that they know, as they put it, that there are these mobile labs or other pieces of evidence of weapons of mass destruction programs," Bennis said.

At the Pentagon, Cambone said that coalition forces had so far only investigated about 70 possible weapons sites out of more than 600 where they suspect the former Iraqi regime may have had illicit programs.

Earlier, Army commander Lieutenant General William Wallace told a news conference in Baghdad that U.S. forces have already collected "plenty of documentary evidence" suggesting that Hussein had an active program for weapons of mass destruction.

Wallace said much of the information was coming from lower-level former Iraqi officials and that it was taking time to uncover.

Acknowledging that it was only a theory, Wallace said the reason such weapons never were used against coalition forces was that they were hard to retrieve quickly since Iraq had hidden them from UN inspectors, who left just before the war started.