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Pentagon Believes It Has Found a Mobile Biowarfare Laboratory

Experts haven't uncovered 'another plausible use' for the trailer, an official says.

May 08, 2003|Bob Drogin | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — An Iraqi military trailer now in U.S. hands may have been built as a mobile biowarfare laboratory and is the most substantial evidence yet of Saddam Hussein's suspected illegal weapons programs, a senior Pentagon official said Wednesday.

Stephen Cambone, undersecretary of Defense for intelligence, said the trailer appears to be "very similar" to the biological-agent production vehicles that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell described to the U.N. Security Council three months ago in a bid to win international support for a war in Iraq.

"While some of the equipment on the trailer could have been used for purposes other than biological weapons agent production," Cambone said, U.S. and British experts who have examined it "have concluded that the unit does not appear to perform any function beyond ... the production of biological agents."

The experts "have not found another plausible use for it, based on the equipment on board, the configuration [and] what they can divine of the process by which it works," he added.

Cambone's cautious comments at a Pentagon news conference marked the first time the Defense Department has announced that it may have found evidence of an illegal weapons programs in Iraq. The Los Angeles Times reported the seizure of the trailer and suspicions about its use April 29.

President Bush had largely justified the war on Iraq by citing the threat that he said Hussein's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons posed to the United States and its allies. But U.S. teams searching the country have failed so far to find any definitive proof of illicit weapons or the programs designed to produce them.

In response to media questions, Cambone declined to describe the trailer as a breakthrough or "smoking gun" that validated administration allegations.

He also appeared to be less confident than some officials about whether hard proof will be found, but he said, "I think we're going to find that they had a weapons of mass destruction program."

Cambone said the trailer is undergoing further tests to determine what, if anything, the equipment inside was configured to produce. Cambone said initial tests showed that it had been "pretty thoroughly washed down" with a caustic substance such as ammonia.

"Thus far, we have only been able to sample ... those things we can reach," Cambone said.

He said experts will dismantle the laboratory equipment in Baghdad to conduct an "intrusive examination of the system" for traces of biological agents.

As a result, he said, it will be "another considerable period of time before the next round of testing comes back and we get some results."

Cambone said officials are highly suspicious because the equipment in the trailer included fermenters to grow biological cultures, gas cylinders to supply clean air for production and, "significantly, a system to capture and compress exhaust gases to eliminate any signature of the production."

The gas recovery system, he added, is "not necessary for, and not normally used for, legitimate biological processes." The equipment was permanently attached to the trailer, officials said.

In addition, Cambone said the trailer, of the type used by long-distance freight haulers, was painted in Iraqi military greens and was found on a heavy transporter typically used for hauling tanks.

Kurdish fighters who seized the trailer at a checkpoint near the town of Tall Kayf in northern Iraq on April 19 told U.S. forces that it may have been accompanied by other military vehicles "along with a decontamination truck," Cambone said.

Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said Iraqi defectors previously had said that mobile labs were designed to produce anthrax, botulism and staphylococcus as biowarfare agents.

Another U.S. intelligence official said the military transporter carrying the trailer had been stolen and that the driver did not know what was inside the trailer or what it was used for.

Cambone also gave the first public details of what he called the Pentagon's "comprehensive approach to identifying, assessing and eliminating Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs and delivery systems."

He said the effort includes interviewing and interrogating key Iraqi officials, searching and testing suspect sites around the country and collecting and analyzing documents, computer hard drives, electronic data and other evidence.

"Out of those documents, which are very important, we think we will be able to gather the evidence and the details on the scope and the content" of the illegal weapons programs, he said.

He said the teams also are seeking to learn more about Iraq's clandestine global procurement network, as well as the people and technologies that "may still be in the pipelines and might be diverted to other places."

Earlier Wednesday, Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, commander of the Army's V Corps, said U.S. forces in Iraq have collected "plenty of documentary evidence" indicating that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

"We've collected evidence, much of it documentary, that suggests there was an active program" for unconventional weapons, Wallace said.

"A lot of the information that we're getting is coming from lower-tier Iraqis who had some knowledge of the program but not full knowledge of the program," he told reporters during a videoconference from the Iraqi capital.

"And it's just taking us a while to sort through all of that."

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