- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2003

U.S. military units are scouring the desert of Iraq for weapons of mass destruction amid fears within the Bush administration that troops of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein will use chemical weapons on the country's civilians and try to put the blame on coalition forces.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday that the administration was gathering as much intelligence as it could on the threat, adding that he had no doubt Iraqi authorities would unleash chemical weapons if it suited their purpose.
"There are such reports. I have no doubt that [Saddam] would do such a thing if he thought it served his interests," Mr. Powell said in an interview with Fox News Channel. "We are concerned about it. We will follow this matter carefully."
Mr. Powell added that once the fighting ends, "we'll have more than ample opportunity to take a thorough look at the country and determine what weapons of mass destruction programs we can show to the world."
A senior State Department official said the secretary was referring to a report indicating that Saddam's cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, aka "Chemical Ali," had been put in charge of southern Iraq and authorized to use chemical weapons against local populations. Al-Majid is believed responsible for a chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988 that killed about 5,000 people.
Allied commander Gen. Tommy Franks told reporters yesterday that the military was working to get its hands on those weapons and related technologies, but he dismissed the idea that use of chemical or biological weapons would prevent the coalition from attaining victory.
"Simply not going to happen," he said. "Someone asked me not too long ago, 'What happens if this regime uses weapons of mass destruction,' and my response was, we win."
Gen. Franks said he had received reports of potential sites of banned weapons and that those locations would be investigated.
"This is work we call SSE, sensitive site exploitation. And we will do some sensitive site exploitation as we go along and we'll do other sensitive site exploitation a bit later in the campaign."
The Fox News network and the Jerusalem Post cited on Sunday unidentified Pentagon officials as saying that a chemical weapons plant near the Iraqi city of Najaf had been seized by the First Brigade of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division as it advanced toward the capital, Baghdad.
The daily, which had a reporter traveling with the U.S. forces, said Iraqi troops surrendered without a fight but one U.S. soldier was slightly wounded when a booby trap exploded as he was clearing the sheet-metal-lined facility.
It said the 100-acre complex was next to military barracks, wrapped with an electric fence, and camouflaged to blend into the surrounding desert, making it difficult to spot from the air.
But Gen. Franks said he could not confirm the reports. "It would not surprise me if there were chemicals in the plant, and it would not surprise me if there weren't," he said from the U.S. Central Command regional headquarters in Qatar.
He added that information had been coming in during the past three to four days about potential weapons-of-mass-destruction sites. "Some of those locations are in areas where we have control, some we have not yet gone into."
A top spokesman for British forces in the Persian Gulf also played down reports about the factory, saying independent checks would have to be carried out first.
"We do have very clear plans in the event that we find a possible site," Group Capt. Al Lockwood told Reuters news agency.
"We … take our own team in to look and see if the site is, or could be, involved in chemical weapons or weapons of mass destruction. And then we look for independent verification to ensure that that's the case, and then we will go public on it."
Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz yesterday shrugged off the importance of the plant. "This factory was visited by [U.N. weapons] inspectors. It's just a small and isolated factory used for civilian purposes," he said at a news conference in Baghdad.
President Bush has vowed to oust Saddam and disarm Iraq of banned chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Five days into the war, no evidence of those weapons has surfaced.
About 250,000 U.S., British and Australian forces stormed into Iraq Wednesday night, bombing targets in Baghdad, and around the country. Ground forces swiftly followed, battling their way across the southern desert toward the capital.

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