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WAR WITH IRAQ

Seized Facility Attracts Interest

A possible chemical plant south of Baghdad is one of several under scrutiny, officials say.

March 24, 2003|Esther Schrader | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — U.S. troops are investigating a seized facility for evidence that may have been involved in the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction, U.S. officials said Sunday.

The plant is near the city of Najaf, about 90 miles south of Baghdad, and is one of several suspected weapons facilities the military is investigating, a senior defense official said.

"We are looking into sites of interest," the U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar, said in a statement late Sunday when asked to confirm the seizure of the factory in Najaf, which was first reported in today's Jerusalem Post.

A reporter from that paper is traveling with the 1st Brigade of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, and she wrote that she accompanied the U.S. forces when they took control of the facility. About 30 Iraqi troops, including a general, surrendered at the plant, the newspaper reported.

One U.S. soldier was slightly wounded when a booby trap exploded as he was clearing the sheet metal-lined facility, the Post said.

A defense official in Washington said it was too early to call the factory, which the Jerusalem Post reporter described as a 100-acre complex surrounded by an electrical fence, a chemical facility. He called the Israeli newspaper report "premature."

"It is a site of interest, one of the sites of interest that we are looking into," the official said.

Asked at a news conference in Qatar on Sunday about reports of the chemical plant, Lt. Gen. John Abizaid of U.S. Central Command declined to comment. He said top Iraqi officers have been questioned about chemical weapons.

"We have an Iraqi general officer, two Iraqi general officers that we have taken prisoner, and they are providing us with information," Abizaid said.

If the plant is found to be a chemical-weapons factory, it would be the first find by the invasion force to validate U.S. claims that Iraq retained the ability to create chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

President Bush has said that eliminating Saddam Hussein's capability of producing and using chemical and biological weapons is a main objective of the war. Much of the international criticism of the U.S.-led invasion has ridden on the fact that U.N. weapons inspectors had not found any banned weapons in Iraq.

Iraqi officials have insisted that they destroyed all of the chemical and biological weapons after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. United Nations weapons inspectors have questioned that claim.

In Washington, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Sunday that U.S. forces in western Iraq had found some "documentation" of interest, potentially related to chemical and biological weapons production.

Myers said U.S. special operations forces found the papers, along with a cache of millions of rounds of ammunition, after a firefight on Saturday, and the discovery "might save thousands of lives if we can find out exactly where and what they have."

"I just know that they have some papers that they want to exploit as quickly as possible, and we're going to do that," Myers told ABC's "This Week."

Myers told "Fox News Sunday" that military investigators are reviewing the documentation "right away."

"We did come across some documentation in a raid out west here in just the last several hours that we're going to exploit." Myers cautioned that he didn't know what the documents said.

"We're just beginning to exploit it," he said. "But they thought it was important enough where they should exploit it right away. And we have teams ready to do that."

He added: "There is no doubt in my mind, from all the intelligence that we've seen, from what we've known that the regime has had before, that the Iraqi regime has chemical and biological weapons."

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