WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. forces on Sunday pressed to find the first cache of Saddam Hussein’s chemical and biological weapons, seizing a suspected chemical factory in southern Iraq and checking other sites based on leads from captured Iraqis and documents.
Officials cautioned it was premature to conclude any forbidden weapons had been located.
Coalition military leaders were keenly interested in a site they took control of in Najaf, south of Baghdad, and were interviewing two captured Iraqi generals for information about Saddam Hussein’s suspected biological and chemical weapons.
U.S. Central Command, which oversees the war in Iraq, said in a statement that troops were examining several “sites of interest,” but said it was premature to call the Najaf site a chemical weapons factory.
American special operations forces found documents in western Iraq that also could lead to chemical or biological weapons facilities, said Gen. Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Myers said U.S. commandos found the papers along with a cache of millions of rounds of ammunition after a firefight on Saturday, and the discovery “might save thousands of lives if we can find out exactly where and what they have.”
“I just know that they have some papers that they want to exploit as quickly as possible, and we’re going to do that, of course,” Myers said.
President Bush and other U.S. officials say ridding Saddam Hussein’s regime of chemical and biological weapons is the main objective of the war. Finding such weapons would be a huge boost for Bush, since much of the international criticism of the U.S.-led war has focused on the fact that United Nations inspectors had not found any banned weapons in Iraq.
Saddam’s government denies it has any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons or programs to produce them.
Asked at a news conference in Qatar Sunday about reports of the chemical plant, Lt. Gen. John Abizaid of U.S. Central Command declined comment. He said top Iraqi officers have been questioned about chemical weapons.
“We have an Iraqi general officer, two Iraqi general officers that we have taken prisoner, and they are providing us with information,” Abizaid said.
If the plant is confirmed as a chemical weapons factory, it would be the first find by the U.S.-led invasion force validating U.S. allegations that Iraq still has weapons of mass destruction.
Iraqi officials have insisted that they destroyed all of the chemical and biological weapons they made after the 1991 Persian Gulf War — a claim U.N. weapons inspectors have questioned.
U.N. weapons inspectors are not aware of any large-scale chemical sites which could be used to make chemical weapons in Najaf, said Ewen Buchanan, spokesman for the inspectors. However, there are many such dual-use sites in other parts of the country because of Iraq’s petrochemical industry.
U.N. inspectors visited a cement plant in the Najaf area earlier this year to check on its explosives cache but did not report finding anything improper. A team of biological weapons inspectors also visited a university and school in Kufa, a few miles north of Najaf.
The U.S. military’s discovery was first reported in the Jerusalem Post, which has a reporter traveling with the unit from the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division which reached the chemical plant. The newspaper reported that about 30 Iraqi troops, including a general, surrendered at the plant.