WASHINGTON—If Saddam Hussein had a hidden arsenal of banned biological and chemical weapons as alleged, American forces in Iraq should be able to find evidence in the next several weeks, weapons experts say.
"That's a time frame that's reasonable," said Joseph Cirincione, a weapons proliferation specialist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a research organization. "By then they should be able to go to the remaining sites they are interested in and should have gotten some serious information from former Iraqi officials and scientists."
Bush administration officials said war was imperative because Saddam had to be disarmed before he could use the weapons against Americans or give them to terrorists. The officials have maintained that the intensive search of Iraq, a country the size of California, will yield proof that Iraq never destroyed or turned over the weapons to inspectors. Iraq claimed that it no longer had them.
No such weapons have been used or found in Iraq.
"If you believe the Bush administration's claims, that's very surprising," said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington and a former U.N. inspector in Iraq. "They always said that Iraq had large stocks of chemical and biological weapons and that Iraq had a very active weapons program that accelerated in the last year."
Cirincione said: "We have all assumed that Saddam had some chemical or biological weapons. But none of us really know."
American troops uncovered 11 containers Monday that they said could be used as chemical and biological laboratories. The containers had been buried near an artillery ammunition plant in southern Iraq. Weapons experts said that such a discovery could point to a clandestine weapons program, but they are withholding judgment until they learn more.
Secretary of State Colin Powell told the U.N. Security Council earlier this year that Iraq had mobile laboratories, but chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix said inspectors had found no evidence of them.
The hunt for weapons of mass destruction, led by U.S. Special Forces and by the U.S. 75th Exploitation Task Force—a unit of intelligence officials from the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency that reports directly to Central Command—has gone to a "very small percentage of a very extensive list of known locations" where such weapons might be, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, vice director for operations with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Monday.
On Sunday, Gen. Tommy Franks estimated that the search would cover 2,000 to 3,000 sites. He acknowledged that tests on some suspected weapons turned out to be "false positives," including a site about 60 miles south of Karbala where military officials initially believed they had discovered a nerve agent. That find turned out to be a commercially available pesticide.
Larger American teams will inspect greater numbers of suspected sites in coming weeks, McChrystal said. As the fighting winds down, "we will have more forces available, and we'll have a more secure environment in which we can get to these locations more easily," he said.
A new government and growing stability also would make it easier to interview Iraqi scientists and technicians who would have first-hand knowledge of a covert weapons program.
Jafar Jafar, who led Iraq's efforts to build a nuclear bomb, surrendered outside Iraq on Sunday. Saddam's top scientific adviser, Gen. Amer Hammoudi al-Saadi, surrendered in Iraq on Saturday. At the time, he insisted that Iraq had no banned chemical or biological weapons.
Weapons experts say al-Saadi could be trying to negotiate amnesty or a role in a new Iraqi government. Or he could be telling the truth.
"I think that there is some anxiety that the Iraqis may have basically liquidated the program and destroyed all traces of it," said John Pike, a military analyst with GlobalSecurity.org, a research group.
Reliable intelligence is necessary to unlock the secrets of Saddam's alleged weapons program, Cirincione said. "Iraq is a large country, and these weapons are relatively small." Production facilities should be easier to locate, he said, because they leave biological and chemical traces nearly impossible to scrub off.
He and other weapons experts hope the search is completed quickly so that scientists and technicians don't slip any of the weapons and materials out of chaotic Iraq and into the hands of terrorists. They argue that international inspectors should be brought in to speed the process and lend it credibility.
"The Pentagon doesn't want anyone else involved. They are mad at (chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans) Blix and (chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed) ElBaradei," Albright said. "It's one thing to be mad at them, but it's another to delay us knowing that we have weapons of mass destruction under control in Iraq."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.