Weapons hunters lower their expectations

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The commander of the American weapons hunters in Iraq says he's certain the U.S. invasion has ended a program capable of producing Iraqi chemical and biological weapons. But Col. Richard R. McPhee says his teams have found no such weapons thus far.

And members of McPhee's team and U.S. defense officials say that banned arms may never be found in Iraq.

This marks a shift in expectations to confirming an Iraqi capability to produce weapons of mass destruction, rather than actually finding them. Before the war, U.S. leaders said they knew such weapons existed in Iraq, and war was necessary to root them out.

"There's no doubt in my mind that what we have stopped here in Iraq is a WMD program that was being run, that was capable of producing chemical weapons, biological weapons," McPhee said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Asked for the evidence, he replied, "The expertise and knowledge of the people, the scientists, dual-use capability facilities. ... I believe clearly there was a capability here that would have kept going."

The recent U.N. inspectors never declared they had uncovered a program designed to produce weapons of mass destruction.

"I think we're going to find that they had a weapons of mass destruction program," undersecretary of defense for intelligence Stephen Cambone said at a Pentagon briefing Tuesday.

"Now, how it was configured and how they intended to use it is part of the hard work that they're going through right now," he said.

After a month's field operations from Kuwait, McPhee's task force has moved into one of Saddam's palace complexes outside Baghdad, a sprawl of sumptuous homes and garish palaces -- all emptied by looters, some damaged by U.S. bombing -- set around a sparkling artificial lake.

A four-unit mobile laboratory is the heart of the operation, centered on two state-of-the-art investigative tools: a gas chromatograph mass spectrophotometer, which instantly deciphers the chemical makeup of suspicious substances; and a DNA thermocycler, whose highly classified catalog of DNA fingerprints would allow the Americans to confirm a sample as anthrax or other bioweapon microbes within 20 minutes.

The 75th "XTF" began work with a list of 900 Iraqi sites where inspectors might look for evidence of banned weapons work, led by 90 high-priority sites. Of those priority locations, 75 have been examined thus far, McPhee said Thursday, with nothing of major significance reported.

The U.S. military's advance through Iraq in late March and early April produced repeated false alarms from combat units that thought they had found banned arms. Suspected chemical weapons in metal drums turned out to be pesticides; suspicious white powder that made headlines was simply explosives; cyclosarin and mustard gas weapons agents were actually rocket fuel.

In fact, McPhee's experts said they haven't once had to don their most protective hazardous-materials outfits, because credible threats never materialized.

A top operations officer said a large percentage of the U.S.-surveyed sites had been inspected by the U.N. agency that resumed inspections for banned weapons programs last November and suspended them in March. Such Iraqi nuclear, chemical and biological facilities had also undergone eight years of earlier U.N. inspections in the 1990s.

The U.N. teams tagged, sometimes sealed or planned to monitor dual-use equipment found at the sites -- that is, equipment that might be intended for benign civilian use, but is potentially useful for weapons-making.

The 75th XTF has reported one find of potentially major significance -- a truck trailer some specialists suspect was designed as a mobile production plant for biological weapons. It was seized at a northern Iraq checkpoint from an apparent truck thief on April 19.

This weekend, a highly qualified group of experts from the United States is expected to arrive in Baghdad to examine the vehicle thoroughly, XTF operations officers said. The investigation may be completed in 10 days, one of the officers said.

Of the trailer, Cambone said the experts have found no other plausible explanation for it than for weapons "based on the equipment on board."

Still, military experts said "dual use" has not yet been ruled out for the fermenter and other equipment in the vehicle.