WASHINGTON—The American-led coalition in Iraq has discovered what it believes is a mobile biological-weapons laboratory, but is still trying to determine whether it was ever actually used to make germ weapons.
The truck-mounted facility is of the type described by Secretary of State Colin Powell in a February speech at the United Nations in which the United States sought to show definitively that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.
American defense and intelligence officials said Tuesday that this may or not be the "smoking gun" that the coalition has been seeking to justify the war with Iraq.
"It looks like a duck, it walks like a duck, but we don't know if it smells like a duck," a senior defense official said.
U.S. officials clearly were excited about the find, but they also were trying to downplay expectations until they could say for certain what they have in hand. Several times in recent weeks, field reports of weapons discoveries later could not be proved true.
"So often we've said this might be something," a defense official said. "Then when it turned out to be not so much, people said, `What's going on?' I think they just want to be sure they know what they've got."
Six weeks after the first American air raids on Baghdad on March 20, no proven biological, chemical or radiological weapon has yet turned up. The United States has come under increasing pressure, at home and abroad, to produce evidence of the weapons' existence.
The mobile laboratory, which consists of tanks, pumps and tubes mounted and enclosed on the back of a truck, was discovered by luck more than a week ago, officials said.
Kurdish militia soldiers, guarding a road checkpoint in Irbil, in northern Iraq, stopped the truck as it approached. It apparently had been stolen by a driver who did not know what it contained.
The truck, which an official said was partially looted, was turned over to a U.S. "site exploitation" team comprised of nuclear, biological and chemical experts. The team has been quietly going over the truck, now in Mosul.
Initial tests did not reveal any signs of biological weapons, but tests are ongoing, said a U.S. intelligence official. There were signs that the truck was "scrubbed pretty clean," he said.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said analysts could not find any other plausible use for the truck except biological-weapons production.
It was equipped with fermenters as well as a system to capture gases so that the vehicle's true purpose could be hidden, he added.
A military official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was telling that the fermenter was not rigged to let gas escape into the outside air.
The vehicle "looks pretty much like the artist's concept Powell used" in his U.N. presentation, the intelligence official said.
"We have first-hand descriptions of biological-weapons factories on wheels and on rails," Powell said during that speech. "The trucks and train cars are easily moved and are designed to evade detection by inspectors.
"In a matter of months," Powell said, "they can produce a quantity of biological poison equal to the entire amount that Iraq claimed to have produced in the years prior to the Gulf War.
"Although Iraq's mobile production program began in the mid-1990s, U.N. inspectors at the time only had vague hints of such programs," he said. "Confirmation came later, in the year 2000."
Powell said the source was an Iraqi chemical engineer who supervised one of these facilities.
"He actually was present during biological-agent production runs," Powell said. "He was also at the site when an accident occurred in 1998. Twelve technicians died from exposure to biological agents."
Powell cited three additional Iraqi sources for his report on bioweapons labs.
The United States believes that Saddam prepared missile warheads and drone aircraft to disperse chemical and biological weapons, either in populated areas or on a battlefield.
Nearly 2,000 American troops are now engaged in the hunt for weapons of mass destruction across Iraq. Warheads capable of carrying chemical or biological weapons have been found. So have drums of chemicals that could be used just as easily for agricultural purposes as for the manufacture of chemical weapons. But a warhead with chemical weapons inside it has not been found.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said that, in searching a country the size of California, the weapons hunters may have to be led to weapons storage areas. They are not likely to stumble on them, he said.
Among about 6,000 Iraqi prisoners of war, most being held in the southern city of Umm Qasr, the coalition has interned at undisclosed locations more than 20 of the 55 Iraqi regime leaders and scientists on a most-wanted list.
Among the latest to be found is Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, a U.S.-educated microbiologist nicknamed "Mrs. Anthrax," who is believed to have been a leader in Saddam's biological-weapons programs.
Defense and intelligence officials say the most-wanted prisoners have been talking to their interrogators. Many continue to deny the existence of any banned weapons programs. And some, officials believe, have been spinning falsehoods.
Some information on the bio-lab discovery has come not from them, but from lower-level detainees, an official said.
Jonathan Tucker, a former U.N. biological-weapons inspector, said the report of the lab's discovery should be treated with caution.
"If true, it would support the administration's case," said Tucker, now a senior fellow at the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace.
But Tucker noted that similar recent reports have proven premature, and that the United States would need evidence of anthrax or some other pathogen to make its case persuasively.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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