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Last Updated

13 May 2003

Source: New York Times, May 13, 2003


Iraq's Mobile Laboratories

American military inspectors have found what they consider their most persuasive evidence yet that Iraq was pursuing weapons of mass destruction: three trailers that look as if they may be mobile biological weapons laboratories. Should the evidence hold up after more thorough analysis, it would validate at least one of the claims made by the Bush administration in arguing that Iraq had an active biological weapons program. But at this point it is difficult to know for sure whether these mobile units were part of a program to produce unconventional weapons or served a more benign purpose.

Two of the suspicious trailers contained equipment that American military experts concluded was almost certainly intended to produce biological weapons. These included, in one trailer or the other, a fermenting machine, a dryer, a system to bring in fresh water and eliminate contaminated water, and equipment to contain the emission of gases that might give away the laboratory's purpose. Yet outside critics say it remains possible that the military investigators, who have cried wolf several times in the past, may once again have misinterpreted what they are seeing.

One former weapons inspector suggests that the trailers may be chemical processing units intended to refurbish Iraq's antiaircraft missiles. Indeed, one was parked at a missile research site. An agricultural expert suggests that the labs may have been intended to make biological pesticides close to agricultural areas to avoid degradation problems. Neither expert, of course, is on the scene. The American military teams claim to have considered these and other alternatives before concluding that biowarfare was the only likely purpose. That judgment will need confirmation from outside experts if it is to carry weight in world opinion. The most definitive proof would be the detection of traces of anthrax or other biological agents in the equipment as analysts continue to examine these most intriguing finds in the weapons search.

Meanwhile, the search for the large stocks of chemical and biological weapons that the administration cited as a threat that could wipe out millions of people has yet to turn up anything significant. The recent surrender of Dr. Rihab Rashid Taha al-Azzawi al-Tikriti, known as Dr. Germ for her past role in the Iraqi biological warfare program, offers some hope that she may shed light on whether the program has continued to function in recent years. But several other high-level scientists and military officials in the weapons programs have already surrendered and have apparently so far denied that Iraq had an active program to make unconventional weapons. Some insist that the programs were dismantled during the years of United Nations monitoring.

American authorities have begun broadcasting offers of rewards in an effort to get lower-level Iraqis to lead them to illicit weapons, and military experts continue to pore over documents that may offer leads. All that is fine, but we still believe that the best way to spur this investigation and give its findings credibility is to invite the United Nations to send its inspection teams back in. They are ready to go if invited.