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Inspectors to Scour Iraq for Mobile Weapons Labs

Western analysts believe a nondescript fleet of trucks could be evasive -- and lethal if bombed.

November 17, 2002|Paul Richter and Greg Miller | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — As U.S. forces weigh storming across the Iraqi border in the coming months, their ability to handle the armored columns of an aging army they crushed 11 years ago is not much in doubt. Far less certain is their ability to deal with another threat: a shadowy fleet of nondescript trucks crisscrossing Iraq that Western intelligence believes is carrying biological weapons.

Rumbling along Iraq's highways or threading their way through crowded city streets, these mobile weapons labs may look like ice cream trucks, motor homes or 18-wheeler tractor trailer trucks, officials and experts say. But their cargo is believed to be germ agents such as anthrax, botulinum toxin and aflatoxin that theoretically could kill hundreds of thousands in an attack.

Dubbed "Winnebagos of death," the anonymous vehicles are hard to locate, even with sophisticated sensors. Military officials are sharply divided about how to handle them, even if they can be found, with some arguing that bombing the mobile labs risks a catastrophic release of germ agents.

Finding such labs will be one of the toughest challenges facing United Nations weapons inspectors as they return to Iraq after a four-year absence and try to track down any biological, as well as chemical or nuclear, weapons that President Saddam Hussein's regime might have stockpiled.

If the labs evade detection, U.S. intelligence analysts fear, the officers or scientists who operate them might try to use germ agents in a desperate counterattack or spirit the materials away to sell to terrorists or foreign governments.

If such materials fall into the hands of a group such as Al Qaeda, that would turn the military campaign into what "could be the greatest proliferation disaster in history," said Daniel Benjamin, a former National Security Council official and coauthor of "The Age of Sacred Terror."

Those entrusted with the labs are "loyal servants of the regime," Benjamin said. They would be unlikely to carry out terror attacks on their own initiative, he said, but their fears about a bleak future under an American-installed regime could give them incentive to sell the material.

"There's nothing to prevent any one of them from pulling off by the side of the road and having the most lethal pathogens loaded into a cooler or rucksack, and disappearing," Benjamin said.

A senior U.S. intelligence official compared the task of finding the labs to the frustrating search last month for a white truck that was believed to hold a sniper who terrorized the Washington area.

"Look how many white vans were stopped here in D.C. looking for a sniper," he said. "There are a lot of trucks [in Iraq], a lot of trailers.... I think it's going to be real hard to find them."

While the labs are "not our No. 1 problem," the official added, they are a threat "that needs to be considered, and weighs heavily on our commanders' minds."

The mobile labs are the latest troubling aspect of the unconventional weapons program that Hussein launched about 30 years ago and worked doggedly to conceal from the U.N. weapons inspectors who were sent to disarm the country after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Denial Is Doubted

Iraq has acknowledged that it developed quantities of several pathogens that could kill hundreds of thousands in an attack. The regime insists it has destroyed all of its supplies -- an assertion the U.S. flatly rejects. In fact, some U.S. officials and outside experts believe Iraq has augmented its deadly arsenal with smallpox.

While Hussein didn't use chemical or biological weapons in the Gulf War, officials believe he would be more likely to do so if he believed his regime was collapsing.

Iraqi officials are suspected of having hidden caches of biological and chemical weapons materials in hundreds of sites across their country, which is only slightly larger than California. U.N. inspectors are expected to have trouble unearthing them.

Even tougher to find would be mobile labs, which the Iraqis are believed to have begun operating in 1996, after U.N. weapons inspectors found and destroyed two large biological weapon production facilities. The British and German governments, and the CIA and Pentagon have all asserted the existence of the mobile labs in separate reports this year.

Iraqi defectors have told U.N. and American officials that the regime decided it was much safer to pack laboratory equipment into vehicles that could operate while parked at weapons plants but could shift location regularly to elude detection.

Defectors report that "Saddam has taken the entire Iraqi program on the road," Kenneth M. Pollack, former director of Persian Gulf affairs at the National Security Council, wrote in his recent book, "The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq."

"Baghdad has a number of BW [biological weapons] labs that can move around the country as needed, leaving no trace and having no signature that Western intelligence can detect," he wrote.

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