The U.S. military tomorrow will begin a major excavation in search of banned weapons components an Iraqi informant said were buried by Saddam Hussein's regime at a Muslim clerics's house in Najaf in December, three months before the war began.
Pentagon officials told The Washington Times that David Kay, who is leading the CIA's search for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, briefed officials on the classified intelligence in Washington this week.
The Iraqi informant told Mr. Kay's team that the weapons components were moved to the cleric's house in Najaf, south of Baghdad, and buried at the base of a wall. Since the Iraqi came forward, the U.S. military has been monitoring the site and is scheduled to begin digging tomorrow.
If the informant's information proves true, it means Saddam was actively hiding weapons components at the very time U.N. inspectors had re-entered Iraq and were conducting searches. That team left Iraq shortly before President Bush ordered the March 20 invasion.
A U.N. team left Iraq in 1998 after the regime repeatedly blocked access to suspected sites. Baghdad claimed it no longer harbored chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, or their components.
Pentagon sources said that after Mr. Kay received the information, he asked the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA), to study the Najaf site. A comparison of before-and-after images showed that the ground had been disturbed.
Sources describe Mr. Kay as somewhat optimistic that weapons or their components will be found there. It was not on the CIA's list of suspected weapons sites before the war.
Mr. Kay told the press this week that members of Saddam's weapons-deception program are coming forward to provide new intelligence. He said the United States now has a better understanding of the lengths to which the regime went to conceal banned components.
"This was a program that over 25 years spent billions of dollars, 10,000 people, was actively shielded by a security and deception plan," said Mr. Kay, who led the U.N.'s first weapons-inspection team after the 1991 Gulf war. "So, it is not something that is easy to unwrap."
The United States has yet to announce the finding of any actual weapons. Mr. Bush largely based his argument for ousting Saddam on the grounds that he harbored weapons that could fall into the hands of international terrorists who would use them against the United States. Mr. Bush said again this week he is confident Saddam's weapons of mass destruction will be found.
Mr. Kay has provided classified briefings to Congress and Bush administration officials on his progress, detailing specific new sites he plans to search. But publicly, he only talks in generalities. The administration plans to issue a comprehensive report in the coming months, rather than issuing piecemeal announcements.
The Bush administration changed course early this summer on its weapons-search techniques. It sent home the original inspection team and then created the larger, and better equipped, Iraq Survey Group, of which Mr. Kay is a senior member. The group is multinational, with teams dedicated to different tasks, such as analyzing piles of Arabic documents and interrogating scientists and Ba'ath Party operatives.
It is known that at least one Iraqi scientist has come forward to provide valuable information. Officials confirmed a CNN report in June that Mahi Shukur Obeidi took inspectors to his back yard where he had buried parts for a gas centrifuge 12 years ago. Such machinery is used to produce weapons-grade uranium, the critical ingredient in a nuclear bomb. In 1991, Iraq admitted it was close to building an atom bomb before the first Gulf war destroyed much of its nuclear facilities.
The fact the scientist was told to hide the machinery has led Bush officials to conclude Saddam planned to resurrect bomb-making plants.
Mr. Kay privately briefed the Senate Armed ServicesCommitteeThursday. He told reporters after his Armed Services appearance his new team is making "real progress" five weeks after its work began.
Mr. Kay specifically rebutted a newspaper report that said his team was no longer traveling to suspected sites. "Almost every one of them is one that we did not know about until we were led to it by Iraqis or the documentation we have seized," he said.
He also disputed the same report that said Iraqi scientists were not talking.
"I think it's important that people understand we are gaining the cooperation, the active cooperation, of Iraqis who were involved in that program," Mr. Kay said.
"We are, as we speak, involved in sensitive exploitation of sites that we are being led to by Iraqis. There is solid evidence being produced. We do not intend to expose this evidence until we have full confidence that it is solid proof."