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U.S. presses POWs for information on chemical weapons

©Associated Press

March 24, 2003

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. military is moving quickly to interrogate more than 2,000 Iraqi POWs, including two generals, for information about the location of chemical and biological weapons.

So far, no tips have led U.S. forces to uncover any of Saddam Hussein's deadliest weapons.

However, U.S. officials said late Sunday that troops have found a suspected chemical factory near the city of Najaf south of Baghdad. U.S. Central Command said in a statement that reports describing the location as a chemical weapons factory were "premature."

And none of Iraq's top Republican Guard units, whose leaders might know more, are yet under U.S. control, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Sunday.

Because of that, U.S. military officers in the field continue to appeal by satellite phone, covert radio broadcasts and leaflets for the surrender of both commanders of individual Iraqi military units and higher-ranking military officials.

"We have received reports from various prisoners that have given us leads" in finding chemical and biological weapons, Lt. Gen. John Abizaid said Sunday, mentioning the two Iraqi generals.

But finding Hussein's well-hidden chemical weapons caches could take a long time, even if Iraqi soldiers and officers provide clues, Abizaid warned.

The U.S. government believes that only a handful of top Iraqi officials know full details of Hussein's chemical and biological weapons programs, and that the regime had years to hide them.

On CBS's Face the Nation, Rumsfeld predicted that Republican Guard units guarding Baghdad might begin to surrender as U.S. forces move closer.

U.S. military officers in the field are in contact with many military commanders through satellite phones and other means, including some Republican Guard unit leaders. But no Republican Guard units have yet surrendered, Rumsfeld said.

The majority of the 2,000 Iraqi POWs are regular army soldiers captured in the south who have scant valuable information for American officials, said Daniel Goure, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute in Washington.

The most important POWs, in addition to the two generals, probably are those captured by U.S. special operations forces, working in secrecy, who have seized at least one airfield in western Iraq, said Goure and other outside military experts.

Those airfields probably would have been used to launch any missiles at countries like Israel, and thus might contain information pointing to where the Iraqi regime stored chemical weapons or how it planned to move them to missile sites.

Any documents seized at such sites might contain valuable information such as when chemical weapons parts were scheduled to arrive or alternative deployment sites, Goure said.

U.S. military teams are urgently examining a large cache of documents uncovered by special operations forces at one such site after a firefight in western Iraq on Saturday night, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Sunday on ABC's This Week.

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