Wednesday, June 25, 2003

The incoming commander of U.S. forces in Iraq said yesterday that he expects stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and an illicit program to build nuclear arms to be uncovered in Iraq.

“I’m confident we will show that there was deception,” Army Lt. Gen. John P. Abizaid said at a Senate hearing on his nomination to be chief of the U.S. Central Command. “And I am also confident that at some point it will lead us to actual weapons of mass destruction.”

Gen. Abizaid, an American of Lebanese descent who speaks Arabic, also said the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in the face of intelligence about their existence is perplexing.

The search for Iraq’s weapons includes looking at documents and talking to informants and detainees, he said.

“I believe that as we get on with the mission of continuing to look for weapons of mass destruction and piece together the evidence that is available within the country … that we’ll piece together the story that tells us what happened to the weapons of mass destruction somewhere between 1998 and 2003,” he said.

The policy of containment of now-ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime for over a decade did not work, Gen. Abizaid said. “And I think that bringing this brutal regime down with as many of the hundreds of thousands of people that he killed was a good thing in its own right,” he said.

Mass graves discovered in Iraq showed that Saddam’s forces had murdered men, women and children by shooting them in the head and even burying them alive in pits, he said.

Gen. Abizaid said that U.S. troops prefer combat to the current mission of “constabulary duty” to stabilize postwar Iraq.

He described three types of opposition to the allied troops in Iraq: armed Ba’athist cells operating in Baghdad, Al Ramadi and Tikrit; radical anti-American Islamists from outside Iraq; and Iraqi criminals.

The foreign fighters were disrupted by a recent military strike on a camp in western Iraq.

Gen. Abizaid said coalition troops are taking the fight to the Ba’athists with the aim to “kill those who would try to kill us.”

Gen. Abizaid said the coalition forces in Iraq are not sitting around waiting to be attacked. “In at least half of the actions that take place there, we are the folks that initiate the contact,” he said.

The 145,000-strong U.S. troop presence in Iraq is not expected to increase, he said. “I think right now we have sufficient number of troops to deal with the tasks at hand that we are faced with militarily,” Gen. Abizaid said.

Troop levels could decrease once the current phase of anti-guerrilla operations is finished at the end of the month, he said.

Gen. Abizaid praised the tactical intelligence data provided to U.S. forces during the conflict. But, he said, the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction was “incomplete.”

The general said he had expected Iraqi forces to use chemical or biological weapons against advancing coalition troops and had expected the latter to find illicit arms “early in the campaign.”

“Fortunately, they did not use weapons of mass destruction against our troops,” he said.

The intelligence supplied to the troops was “the most accurate that I’ve ever seen on the tactical level, probably the best I’ve ever seen on the operational level,” Gen. Abizaid said.

U.S. intelligence provided an unprecedented “picture” of the Iraqi forces and their intentions, which helped speed the rapid drive of allied forces to Baghdad.

However, intelligence agencies provided information that was “perplexingly incomplete on the strategic level with regard to weapons of mass destruction.”

Gen. Abizaid said he could not understand why no weapons of mass destruction were found “when the evidence was so pervasive” that they existed.

Coalition forces expected to intercept Iraq’s chemical or biological arms before they were moved from storage depots to guns. “But we’ve looked at the depots, and they’re not there,” Gen. Abizaid said.

The weapons could have been moved, hidden or destroyed, he said.

Movement from weapons depots before the war was viewed by the United States as preparation by Iraqi forces to use weapons of mass destruction against coalition troops, he said.

However, in retrospect, the movement of arms may have been intended “to get rid of them,” Gen. Abizaid said.

The discovery of Iraqi chemical warfare protective suits showed that the Iraqis had planned to use poison gas and would have attacked coalition troops with chemical weapons as they closed in on Baghdad, he said.

If confirmed by the Senate, Gen. Abizaid will replace the outgoing commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Tommy Franks.

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