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U.S-Led Forces Occupy Baghdad Complex Filled With Chemical Agents
By JUDITH MILLER
WITH MET ALPHA, in Baghdad, Iraq, April 23 ? American-led forces have occupied a vast warehouse complex in Baghdad filled with chemicals where Iraqi scientists are suspected of having tested unconventional agents on dogs within the past year, according to military officers and weapons experts.
The officers and experts declined to comment on the source of the information that led them to the warehouse, given the sensitivity of both the source and current operations.
Weapons experts and officers who have seen the warehouse said it was heavily looted before members of Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha and other allied forces seized and secured it. They described it as filled with broken parts and remnants of equipment consistent with a full-scale laboratory.
This reporter was not permitted to visit the warehouse but heard descriptions of it from Americans who went to the site.
In one portion of the vast warehouse complex were rows of shelves containing chemical precursors and other materials that could be used for both peaceful and military research. Another part of the complex contained the remnants of what Iraqi and Americans said was the laboratory.
Iraqis have told American weapons experts that Iraqi scientists tested various agents on dogs and other animals at this site, the experts said.
There was no immediate way to verify this claim.
But American weapons experts have been collecting samples among the debris to test for the presence of dangerous chemicals or biological agents. The samples are being analyzed in American military labs at an undisclosed location.
They are not, however, being examined in the expensive transportable labs sent to the region by the Defense Intelligence Agency's Chemical and Biological Intelligence Support Team. Those are still based far from the Iraqi capital near the Kuwaiti border.
American officials contended that the information gathered in the warehouse, along with material being collected from other sources and sites, seemed to provide some corroboration to accounts from an Iraqi scientist and others who have told Americans that President Saddam Hussein continued expanding his unconventional weapons programs while claiming to have dismantled them.
Viewed as one of the best new sources for American intelligence, the Iraqi scientist and others reported to be involved in chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs, say that Mr. Hussein continued expanding his unconventional weapons research and development facilities even as he destroyed stockpiles of lethal chemical and biological weapons and agents, according to American officers and weapons experts.
According to recent American visitors, the nondescript warehouse complex was a wreck when they arrived. Bottles and vials were smashed, pieces of lab equipment were torn asunder, and shelving was pulled from the walls.
The floors were filled with debris from broken lab equipment, documents and vials. But analysts who have sifted through the debris have concluded that this was the site of a functioning laboratory not long ago.
The warehouse is large, a fairly standard size for Iraq. Baghdad has hundreds of them. As a result, one weapons expert said, finding this particular complex, or even concluding that this pile of rubble was connected with unconventional weapons, would have been virtually impossible absent Iraqis willing to discuss what had taken place.
Iraqi officials have told the Americans that Iraq's research and development system was expanded in two basic ways.
First, they have said, equipment that could be used for work on unconventional weapons was concealed in plants that made conventional arms, of which there are many in Iraq, and in other factories engaged in supposedly peaceful projects.
At an ammunition plant near the southern city of Karbala, for instance, MET Alpha members found explosive-proof glass, packages that once contained a drying oven and sophisticated laboratory equipment that MET Alpha members say could have been used in a chemical or biological laboratory for peaceful or military research.
What the giant complex was ultimately intended to make is still unclear, analysts said. But the presence of sophisticated laboratory equipment led American weapons experts who surveyed this site to conclude that the Iraqi government might have been using the ammunition plant partly to hide unconventional weapons.
Their conclusion, however, is speculative, because no such chemical or biological weapons have been found.
In one abandoned building still under construction, American weapons experts found liquid chemicals boxed for transport in containers identified as containing "instant full cream milk powder." The cartons were printed in English.
Second, Iraqis have said that Mr. Hussein's military expanded its research capability by establishing safe houses and mobile laboratories among which sensitive equipment and scientists were moved.
American military forces have not found any buried mobile labs. But experts believe that the warehouse complex may have been part of the effort to hide research activities.
While relatively little is yet known about the range of research and development that may have been conducted in this warehouse complex, American officials say that an Iraqi who recently began cooperating with American officials told weapons experts that such laboratories had experimented with increasing the deadliness of conventional weapons and chemical and germ agents permitted by treaties and agreements banning unconventional weapons.
The Americans said an Iraqi had told them that his program had succeeded in turning a chemical agent specifically permitted by the chemical weapons treaty into a lethal substance.
One weapons expert familiar with the warehouse said international inspectors could have searched for years in Iraq without seeing any telltale signatures of an unconventional weapons programs or anything particularly suspicious about the warehouse. "Everything we've seen tells us that Iraqis were masters of deception and concealment," he said. "Some of these facilities were hiding in plain sight."
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