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U.S. insists on confirmation of weapons of mass destruction before announcing finds

DOHA, Qatar—Although the reason for war was to rid Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. military has been reluctant to comment on reports that troops have found biological or chemical agents or been exposed to them.

The reason: They don't want to be wrong.

Alleging that Iraq has stocked or used a particular agent is an accusation of "such a significant nature" that "until all the testing is completed, it would be inappropriate to classify anything," said Navy Capt. Frank Thorp, a Central Command spokesman.

In the last week, the military's high-tech sensors and weapons experts have reported numerous suspicious indications:

_Soldiers were decontaminated and later evacuated from a captured compound at Albu Muhawish, 60 miles south of Baghdad, after sensors indicated the presence of the powerful nerve agent sarin. More than a dozen suffered vomiting, dizziness and rashes.

_Troops found a warehouse southwest of Baghdad containing about 20 rockets they believed to be tipped with chemical and nerve agents.

_Another unit found chemical warfare manuals along with thousands of boxes filled with a mysterious liquid and white powder.

_Marines dug up two rockets that bore chemical weapon symbols and had been buried in cement outside a school in central Iraq.

_Bottles found in the southwestern desert town of Mudaysis and "marked in strange ways," according to U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, tested positive for Tabin, a chemical agent developed in the 1940s.

"That's about the sixth report we've had in the last week," a U.S. Central Command spokesman said Tuesday after a reporter asked about one of the finds. "We don't say anything because if it turns out we're wrong, we're going to look like we're jumping the gun."

Part of the problem is that Iraq is largely agricultural and has no pollution laws. Cyanide in water could be mining waste. Anthrax in soil could mean no more than that livestock, which sometimes have the disease, had been nearby.

"I applaud the slow pace of the military in confirming this," David Kay, a former chief U.N. weapons inspector, told MSNBC earlier this week after one such field report. "It's really not your gold standard where you want to go before the international community and say, `Look, he was lying.'"

Coalition troops have found Iraqi stockpiles of gas masks, protective suits, chemical detection equipment and atropine injectors. But coalition troops carry them, too.

Discoveries of weapons of mass destruction might not be confirmed until after the war when investigators can talk to Iraqis who helped make, use and hide them, some Central Command officials said.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.