News24 – Baqubah – US troops in Iraq say finding Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is not yet a top priority despite mounting pressure on Washington to justify the war with hard evidence.
Officers with the 4th Infantry Division in northern Iraq said security and force protection were still their main focus as ground troops fanned out and as work on a new government began in Baghdad.
“The NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) operations are being looked at as more important than (in other wars) but they’re not the main priority, which is establishing security,” said Captain Bobbie Jackson, chemicals officer for the division’s 2nd Brigade.
“Once all the pockets of resistance are cleared up I think the search will intensify.”
In a major coup for US investigators, an official said on Monday top Iraqi scientist Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, involved in Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programme, had been taken into custody.
Described as a “weapons of mass destruction scientist”, she was number 53 on the US list of wanted Iraqi officials.
The US and British governments have consistently said evidence from such scientists could be more valuable than inspections in the search for the truth about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programme.
“Assembling an accurate picture of Saddam’s programmes will take time,” pleaded Britain’s foreign secretary Jack Straw last week.
“Until we are able to question the scientists and experts who worked on these programmes – and the UN has a list of 5 000 names – progress will inevitably be slow.”
The United States and Britain used accusations of a hidden weapons of mass destruction programme as the primary justification for invading Iraq. But so far no chemical, biological or nuclear weapons have been officially reported.
Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector, has suggested sending back UN inspectors to lend credibility to the US-led search.
The White House, however, has said it is not yet time to discuss the return of UN inspectors and has instead set up its own 1 000-strong survey team to scour the country.
But as troops on the ground continue to test suspected sights without success, Washington is coming under growing pressure to prove its allegations, which the ousted regime strenuously denied.
A group of former intelligence specialists has called on President George W Bush to investigate the CIA and other spy agencies for their failure to uncover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
The failure, said the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), constituted a “policy and intelligence fiasco of monstrous proportions”.
Bush “has been backed into the untenable position of assuming the former role of Saddam Hussein in refusing to cooperate with UN inspectors,” it said in a statement on Thursday.
“The refusal feeds suspicions that the Bush administration wishes to avoid independent verification and preserve the option of planting evidence.”
Troops with the 4th Division in northern Iraq have inspected several suspected sites since they began moving into the area two weeks ago. Despite a number of false alarms, no chemical or biological weapons had been found, Jackson said.
In one operation last week, US troops in full protective clothing tested a suspected site in Baqubah, 40km north of Baghdad, which turned out to be a flour mill.
“Look at the size of this place. I don’t have the resources to dig up everything…It’s going to take a long time,” Jackson said.
She said she would be happy if no weapons off mass destruction were found, although their discovery would “validate our reasons for being over here”.