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Another Iraqi site opened to reporters

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 9, 2003

SARGET, Iraq -- Ansar al-Islam, the militant Islamic group that occupies a small portion of northern Iraq, briefly opened access Saturday to a primitive military compound that the United States has described as a poisons and explosives factory that is supported by both Baghdad and al-Qaida.

The existence of this camp was disclosed last week by Secretary of State Colin Powell in a presentation to the U.N. Security Council.

Powell said the camp had been established by a network led by Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, an associate of Osama bin Laden who is accused of coordinating the killing of an American diplomat in Jordan last year.

Also, senior Kurdish officials have said the camp was used to experiment with toxins on animals.

In what seemed an effort to rebut the claims, Ansar allowed about a dozen journalists to enter the compound Saturday afternoon.

They found a wholly unimpressive place -- a small and largely undeveloped cluster of buildings that appeared to lack substantial industrial capacity. For example, the structures did not have plumbing and had only the limited electricity supplied by a generator.

Roughly half the buildings in the compound appeared to have recently been used as civilian homes. The remaining buildings served either as barracks or as a television and radio station.

Two Ansar officials who escorted journalists dismissed Powell's allegation as baseless. "This place is an isolated place, and we have just our weapons," said Ayub Khidir, adding that by weapons he meant rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns.

The New York Times reported that a senior State Department official maintained Saturday that no matter the rough conditions at Sarget, Powell's characterization of the compound was accurate.

No matter how much the visit appeared on the surface to contradict Powell's description, its value was degraded by the fact that three days had passed since Powell concluded his remarks -- ample time to remove suspect material.

Muslims converge on Mecca for hajj

MECCA, Saudi Arabia -- Nearly 2-million Muslims converged on this city holy to Islam on Saturday for the annual pilgrimage. Some of the faithful offered prayers to avert a U.S.-led war on Iraq.

Saudi authorities, wary of protests against a looming invasion of Iraq, deployed thousands of police at the start of the five-day hajj.

"We have taken all necessary measures and we do not expect any disturbing events during the hajj," Maj. Moussa al-Tanbi, head of the Hajj Department in the Saudi Public Security, told the Associated Press.

Iran's supreme leader: U.S. just wants oil

TEHRAN, Iran -- A U.S.-led war against Iraq seeks only to dominate oil reserves and will set America on the same "path of oppression" that tore apart the Soviet Union, Iran's supreme leader said Saturday.

The strong words by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's most powerful political figure, underscore the mounting anxiety over growing U.S. power in the region despite Iran's deep disdain for Saddam Hussein's regime.

"Americans just want to gain access to the oil sources of Iraq," Khamenei told air force officers in a ceremony to mark the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the U.S.-back monarchy.

"The United States is lying that this war is about weapons of mass destruction," he continued. "No one accepts these justifications. . . . Anyone who doesn't have the power to defend against the United States and other big powers is in grave danger.

"The Soviet Union started on a path of oppression and where is this government now?" Khamenei said. "The United States is also headed for destruction because of its policies."

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