ALBU MUHAWISH, Iraq—This small village on the Euphrates River could turn out to be the site of the first confirmed discovery of banned chemical agents that were the U.S. justification for invading Iraq.
Field tests Monday confirmed the presence of toxic nerve and blister agents at an agricultural warehouse.
Maj. Bryan Lynch, chemical officer for the 101st Airborne Division, said samples taken from barrels in the warehouse, about two miles from a military compound, are being flown to the United States to determine of they are of weapons grade.
The discovery is the strongest indication so far of possible Iraqi chemical weapons in the 20-day-old war and, if confirmed, would bolster the Bush administration's rationale for invasion.
Since about a dozen soldiers were stricken with vomiting and dizziness at the military base Sunday, authorities have been checking for the possible existence of chemical weapons around this strategic town between Karbala and Hillah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad.
In samples taken from the agricultural warehouse Monday, two separate FOX nuclear, biological, chemical detection vehicles reached identical results: the presence of nerve agents Sarin and Tabun, and also the blister agent Lewsite.
The substances were found in metal drums in a recently constructed bunker that had been partially buried.
Positive readings for nerve agents also had been detected in initial tests at a military facility on Sunday. But a second battery of tests late Sunday came back inconclusive.
Unlike Sunday, though, Monday's initial positive test results at the agricultural site were confirmed by a second battery of tests.
"FOX are very accurate; I'm sure what they picked up today are accurate readings," said Lynch. "It's some type of chemical agent, but we need more analysis to see if it's weapons grade."
The cautious tone by officials in describing the find is a result of Sunday's conflicting tests.
U.S. troops guarding the installation became sick and were decontaminated with chlorine bleach and water showers and full-body scrub downs with bleach detergent and brushes after field exams initially detected Sarin. Subsequent tests indicated the agents were "unknown substances, possibly pesticides."
On Monday, some soldiers who were at the scene and this reporter developed red blotches or rashes on their hands and faces. The armored Humvee soldiers of Delta Company of the 2nd battalion have left the area and remain serving in the field.
The agricultural warehouse had been used to store pesticides in the past. But when soldiers examined the building, they found weapons stacked to the ceiling. Three truckloads of arms—including rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and AK-47s—were removed from the site Monday.
Asked whether the substances tested Monday could be pesticides, Lynch said it was possible but added, "It's very suspicious because the barrels were freshly dug into the ground very hastily."
Lynch is the senior chemical adviser to the 101st Division's commander, Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus. The chemical detection teams are made up of the 101st's 63rd Chemical Company and the 51st Chemical Company from Fort Polk, La.
Brig. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakly of the 101st Airborne visited the soldiers of the detection teams here Monday, telling them "their good work could vindicate President Bush's assertion that Saddam Hussein has stockpiled biochemical weapons. This may just add credibility to what the president said."
Later, in an interview on CNN, Freakly said: "The bunker, which had more than ten 25-gallon drums and three 55-gallon drums with the Fuchs tested positive for a nerve agent and for a blister agent.
"Now, this could be either some type of pesticides, because this was an agricultural compound and literature inside the compound talked about dealing with mosquitoes and other type of airborne vermin. And it is right along the Euphrates River, very close to the Euphrates River.
"But on the other hand, it could be a chemical agent. Not weaponized. A liquid agent that's in drums. And so our FOXs are very sensitive, they're great equipment. And we'll follow up with higher level testing in the next day or so to confirm what we have here."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.