U.S. weapons experts in Iraq have discovered ingredients and equipment that can be used to make a chemical weapon, U.S. military officials confirmed Monday.
The discovery south of Baghdad was made several days ago with the help of an Iraqi scientist who claimed to have worked in Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons program. The findings were first reported in Monday’s edition of The New York Times.
The military officials, involved in the weapons hunt and based at Camp Doha in Kuwait, refused to name the scientist or identify the material which had been buried in the ground. Many chemical weapons ingredients have non-military purposes and officials cautioned that the findings, which are being analyzed, do not confirm the presence of chemical weapons at this particular site.
According to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the scientist also claimed that Iraq destroyed and buried chemical weapons and biological warfare equipment days before the war began March 20. Members of the U.S. military’s Mobile Exploitation Team, set up to hunt for banned weapons, have not been able to confirm all of the scientist’s claims.
In Washington, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declined to confirm the discovery.
He said inspection teams were continuing to search for evidence of weapons of mass destruction and that the government would “obviously look with favor on” Iraqis who provide information on hidden materials.
Rumsfeld said last week that U.S. troops would need to rely on the help of Iraqis to find the weaponry.
In a recent interview, chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix had cautioned the Americans to treat information with skepticism, noting that some Iraqis may be motivated to claim more than they know.
Blix’s inspectors, working in Iraq between November until mid-March, didn’t find any evidence that Iraq had weapons it claimed to have destroyed years ago.
But the Bush administration was unconvinced and has said one of the main reason for the war was to disarm the country of the chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs it believes Saddam was concealing.
So far U.S. teams haven’t found any conclusive evidence of the kind of weapons Iraq was banned from having after the 1991 Gulf War. Some tests are still being conducted, however, and officials have said it was possible the Iraqis may have moved materials out of the country ahead of the war.
The scientist told military officials that several months before the war, he watched as Iraqi officials buried chemical precursors for weapons and other sensitive material to conceal and protect them for future use. He said stockpiles of deadly agents and weapons technology had been transferred to Syria in the mid-1990s.
Four days before President Bush gave Saddam an ultimatum in March, the scientist said Iraqi officials set fire to a warehouse where biological weapons research was conducted.
The scientist reportedly gave a note to the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. The note was then passed to the inspection team, which found the scientist at his home.
Among the scientists claims was that Iraq recently began cooperating with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terror network. The officials said they were unable to immediately verify the claim. The Bush administration has alleged ties between Saddam’s regime and al-Qaida but they’ve provided little conclusive evidence.