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Last Updated

08 May 2003

Source: New York Times, May 8, 2003

U.S. Aides Say Iraqi Truck Could Be a Germ-War Lab


BAGHDAD, May 7 Senior Bush administration officials in Washington said today that a joint British-American team of experts had concluded that a tractor-trailer truck found in northern Iraq several weeks ago could be a mobile biological weapons lab.

The trailer's design closely fits that of a mobile biological weapons laboratory described by a defector, but the officials could not say whether it had ever produced biological agents for weapons.

"While some of the equipment on the trailer could have been used for purposes other than biological weapons agent production, U.S. and U.K. technical experts have concluded that the unit does not appear to perform any function beyond what the defector said it was for, which was the production of biological agents," said Stephen A. Cambone, the under secretary of defense for intelligence.

The van was seized on April 19 at a checkpoint controlled by Kurdish allies near Tallkayf in northern Iraq. It was hauled atop a heavy equipment transporter normally used for tanks, Dr. Cambone said.

The Kurdish troops who stopped the trailer said it might have been traveling in a convoy of military vehicles, perhaps with a decontamination truck.

When Secretary of State Colin L. Powell addressed the United Nations in February to describe intelligence on Iraq's biological and chemical weapons program, he cited a defector's report on mobile laboratories that could develop unconventional weapons and be moved around Iraq to avoid detection and attack.

In his address on Feb. 5, Mr. Powell described a configuration of two or three trucks parked alongside each other, which when they were producing biological agents, were attached to one another by hoses.

The defector said mobile laboratories had been used to produce anthrax, botulism and staphylococcus.

Dr. Cambone said the trailer, now on its way to Baghdad for further testing, had a number of "common elements" with those described by the defector, including "the external superstructure and its dimensions; the equipment, such as the fermenter on board, the 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."

Only the van's surfaces have been tested thus far, although "what we'll do now is a much more thorough and complete and more intrusive examination of the system," which will include dismantling the van and its equipment, he said.

"That means that there will be many more tests that will be taken, and so it will be another considerable period of time before the next round of testing comes back and we get some results," Dr. Cambone said.

He said that at some point before it was seized by coalition forces, the van had been scrubbed with "a very caustic substance," perhaps ammonia, and had been painted.

During a Pentagon briefing, Dr. Cambone said the effort to uncover Iraq's weapons of mass destruction would soon be turned over to a major general who would command an Iraq Survey Group with about 2,000 people.

"Its mission is to discover, take custody of, exploit and disseminate information on individuals, records, materials, facilities, networks and operations as appropriate relative to individuals associated with the regime, weapons of mass destruction, terrorists and terrorist ties and their organizations, information having to do with the Iraqi Intelligence, Security and Overseas Services, and those accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and P.O.W.'s," he said.

Teams now on the ground have inspected about 70 sites on a list of almost 600 that American officials had drawn up before the war, and had visited another 40 sites identified for the first time through intelligence and research since the war began.

"This is piecing together a major jigsaw puzzle, and we're only just beginning to gain insights and to work the puzzle," said Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Also today, Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, commander of the Army's V Corps in Iraq, said American forces had collected much "documentary evidence" that "suggests there was an active program" for weapons of mass destruction.

"A lot of the information that we're getting is coming from low-tier Iraqis who had some knowledge of the program but not full knowledge of the program, and it's just taken us a while to sort through all of that," he added.

Two days ago at the headquarters of the Exploitation Task Force, or XTF, which is responsible for the hunt for unconventional weapons, officials said the unit's experts had not concluded that the equipment constituted a mobile biological weapons lab.

The senior officers said that while early tests using handheld samplers had registered the presence of biological agents on some of the equipment, subsequent tests run by the XTF's more sophisticated labs on those same samples had proved "negative" that is, the tests showed no indication of the presence of any biological agent or toxin.

If the trailer proves to be a mobile weapons lab, it would be the first uncovered in Iraq, and the discovery would support the Bush administration's claims that Iraq continued to pursue weapons of mass destruction in violation of United Nations sanctions and its 1991 pledges to end such programs. American allegations of such an illicit program and stockpiles of unconventional weapons were a major justification for the war against Iraq.

A senior administration official said today that he was untroubled by the fact that the tests conducted by the XTF's sophisticated labs had not detected the presence of agents. "We never expected to find such proof," he said, "because the vehicles were decontaminated."

One official said that while he could not prove that the tractor-trailer labs had actually produced germ warfare agents, they had been designed and configured to do so.

"If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it has got to be a duck," the administration official said.