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Last Updated

01 Feb 2003

Source: Washington Post, February 1, 2003

U.S. Aims to Prove Iraq Has Secret Cache

By Peter Slevin, Washington Post Staff Writer

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is hiding mobile biological weapons laboratories from international weapons inspectors in violation of U.N. Security Council demands, according to the Bush administration, which hopes to convince a world audience next week of the existence of the secret facilities as proof of Iraqi intransigence.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who will argue the case against Hussein on Wednesday at the council, is working "feverishly" to declassify intelligence reports about bioweapons vans, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage said. The goal is to convey to "a wider public more graphically" what is known about the facilities, he said.

Newly declassified intelligence will be central to Powell's effort to show that Hussein is defying the United Nations and its attempt to strip Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. Powell aims to offer evidence that Iraq has acquired equipment useful in the development of banned chemical and biological weapons and the missiles that could deliver them, officials said.

In a presentation being assembled as officials sift through aerial photographs, telephone intercepts and interrogation records, Powell also aims to demonstrate closer links between Iraq and terrorist organizations than have previously been detailed.

President Bush told reporters yesterday that the Iraqi leader "would like nothing more than to use a terrorist network to attack and to kill and leave no fingerprints behind." Bush predicted Powell will make "a strong case about the danger of an armed Saddam Hussein."

"He will make it clear that Saddam Hussein is fooling the world, or trying to fool the world," Bush told reporters after meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "He will make it clear that Saddam is a menace to peace in his own neighborhood. He will also talk about al Qaeda links, links that really do portend a danger for America and for Great Britain, anybody else who loves freedom."

Powell's presentation is expected to be pivotal to the credibility of the Bush administration's argument that Hussein may need to be toppled by force. Significant members of the Security Council -- including veto-bearing countries France, Russia and China -- say they are unconvinced that Hussein's record merits armed confrontation soon.

A significant slice of the American public says it wants to see stronger evidence of Hussein's dangerousness and defiance before supporting military action, according to opinion polls. On Capitol Hill, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) said many senators "have not yet seen the kind of data" necessary to support a declaration of war.

A senior State Department official said yesterday that Powell's purpose will be to "explain, reinforce and fill in the gaps" in the Security Council presentations Monday by chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, International Atomic Energy Agency chief.

"This isn't going to be the smoking-gun speech. This isn't going to be a startling new description of Iraq," the official said. "The secretary's going to provide some level of detail about why it is that inspections without cooperation are so difficult."

Administration officials in the past 10 days have made allegations intended to refute Iraq's insistence that it possesses none of the prohibited weapons identified by U.N. weapons inspectors and intelligence agencies. Included are allegations that Iraq failed to report significant earlier production of anthrax and other toxins, and failed to destroy the material.

Blix told the Security Council that inspectors believe Iraq produced more highly toxic VX gas of greater purity than it admitted. He said there is a discrepancy of 6,500 chemical bombs and 1,000 tons of chemical agent in Iraqi declarations.

Iraq's testing and deployment of missiles that are bigger and travel farther than U.N.-defined limits might be "a prima facie case" of violation of U.N. prohibitions, Blix reported, adding that further assessment was needed. He noted that Iraq also has rebuilt casting chambers for missile motors after the chambers had been destroyed under U.N. supervision.

Powell will seek to show the Security Council that Iraq has been purchasing equipment essential for the manufacture of chemical, biological and possibly nuclear weapons, officials said. Many of the materials could be used for more innocent purposes, as well.

U.S. authorities have spent a significant amount of time developing information about biological weapons labs. Armitage testified Thursday that the large bioweapons vans are parked in "one of the many, many, many underground facilities or someone's garage."

One of the most-questioned U.S. claims is the assertion that the Iraqi government has close ties to the al Qaeda terrorist network. The extremist group Ansar al-Islam is known to operate in northern Iraq, and Armitage said al Qaeda operatives are in Baghdad.

Armitage cited as an example Abu Musab Zarqawi, a senior al Qaeda planner and toxins expert who traveled to Baghdad last year for medical treatment after he lost a leg in Afghanistan.

Zarqawi, a Jordanian, is described as a highly mobile top operator who was involved in the failed millennium plot to plant bombs at Jordanian sites frequented by Israelis and Americans. He was sentenced to death in absentia in Jordan for plotting to blow up an Amman hotel. Over the past year, intelligence sources said, he has been in Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey and Iraq.

Officials at the CIA and National Security Council are poring over information they believe may link individuals in northern Iraq to the arrest in London of seven North Africans plotting to use the deadly toxin ricin. Such a link would provide the White House with its starkest proof of its assertion that the gravest threat Hussein poses is the possibility that he would give weapons of mass destruction to anti-American terrorist networks outside Iraq.

Though no direct connection has been made, at least one person in the chain that led to London had associations with Osama bin Laden's group, sources said. Because only traces of ricin were found, investigators are concerned about what happened to the bulk of the poison.

Staff writers Walter Pincus, Dana Priest and Susan Schmidt contributed to this report.