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AFTER THE WAR

Trailer May Support Bioweapons Claims

Specialists are confident inspections will show its intended use was to make illicit agents.

May 14, 2003|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

MOSUL, Iraq — U.S. military specialists who have examined a looted trailer equipped with chemical vats and compressors believe with "a reasonable degree of certainty" that the crude equipment was a mobile biological weapons laboratory, the commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq said Tuesday.

The trailer -- listing and shorn of its tarpaulin covers, tires, hoses and other accessible parts -- was found last week. It stands at the edge of the Al Kindi Weapons Research and Development compound awaiting inspection by experts en route from the United States, said Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the Army's 101st Airborne Division.

Petraeus' forces previously have announced discoveries that might confirm U.S. claims that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime was developing weapons of mass destruction -- only to find that the items were conventional weapons or chemical compounds commonly used for peaceful purposes.

This time, the general is hopeful that inspections will produce long-sought evidence supporting Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's assertions to the U.N. Security Council last fall that Iraq was poised to expose its enemies to poison gas or biological agents.

"What we'd love to find is some compound that would prove the smoking gun," Petraeus said of the trailer.

Civil affairs experts who have examined the trailer said they were fairly certain it was designed to produce biological agents on the run, to stay ahead of U.N. weapons inspectors who were in the country until a few days before the U.S.-led war began in March. But Petraeus conceded that looting might deprive investigators of proof.

It was also unclear whether the apparently unfinished facility had ever been used, he said.

What remains of the trailer teeters on tireless wheels in a gravel lot near the weapons compound. The only major equipment still inside includes a stainless steel boiler, a vat and a compressor bolted to the floor. A placard reads, in English: "Al-Iraq Factory for production of Safety Valves of Compressors."

"We call this guy R2D2," said Army Spc. Erick Corrales, pointing to a robot-like boiler too heavy for looters to steal. The Los Angeles native is one of two dozen soldiers patrolling the site.

The stripped trailer is identical to one found two weeks ago near Irbil, 50 miles east of Mosul and just inside an autonomous zone controlled by ethnic Kurds. The vehicles' serial numbers suggested that the Irbil trailer was the first of a production line and that the Mosul vehicle was the second, Petraeus said.

Meanwhile, an Iraqi weapons engineer who worked at Al Kindi warned that the facility's 950 now-unemployed specialists were easy prey for terrorists or rogue nations keen on hiring weapons technology know-how.

Shaheen Ali Dahhir, who said he worked in the "intelligent weapons" sector, added that he approached U.S. forces with a proposal to form a civil engineering brigade from the idled experts.

"These people need to be in other work, reconstructing the country," he said. "I worry that if someone comes along and offers them something, they will take it just so they can feed their families."

He met early Tuesday with officers of the 101st Airborne to propose a diversionary program like that initiated in the mid-1990s when numerous Russian scientists with weapons expertise were being hired by Iran, Libya and other countries.

Shaheen suggested that the bombed buildings of the Al Kindi facility should be rebuilt by U.S. forces so the specialists can retain their place of work.

That would be a tall order: The site is a veritable wasteland, where looters carted off what was left after repeated airstrikes by U.S.-led forces. Three of the facility's six buildings were destroyed -- one by a "bunker-buster" bomb that broke up the foot-thick concrete floor and sprayed pieces hundreds of feet away.

Petraeus brushed off the engineer's proposals.

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