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GIs find what may be chemical weapons

By Times wire services
Published April 8, 2003

ALBU MUHAWISH, Iraq - This small village on the Euphrates River could turn out to be the site of the first confirmed discovery of banned chemical agents that were the U.S. justification for invading Iraq.

Field tests Monday confirmed the presence of toxic nerve and blister agents at an agricultural warehouse.

Maj. Bryan Lynch, chemical officer for the 101st Airborne Division, said samples taken from barrels in the warehouse, about 2 miles from a military compound, are being flown to the United States to determine of they are of weapons grade.

Since about a dozen soldiers were stricken with vomiting and dizziness at the military base Sunday, authorities have been checking for the possible existence of chemical weapons around this town between Karbala and Hillah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad.

In samples taken from the agricultural warehouse Monday, two separate Fox nuclear, biological, chemical detection vehicles reached identical results: the presence of nerve agents sarin and tabun, and also the blister agent lewisite.

The substances were found in metal drums in a recently constructed bunker that had been partially buried.

Positive readings for nerve agents also had been detected in initial tests at a military facility on Sunday. But a second battery of tests late Sunday came back inconclusive.

Unlike Sunday, though, Monday's initial positive test results at the agricultural site were confirmed by a second battery of tests.

"Fox are very accurate; I'm sure what they picked up today are accurate readings," said Lynch. "It's some type of chemical agent, but we need more analysis to see if it's weapons grade."

The cautious tone by officials in describing the find is a result of Sunday's conflicting tests.

U.S. troops guarding the installation became sick and were decontaminated with chlorine bleach and water showers and full-body scrub downs with bleach detergent and brushes after field exams initially detected sarin. Subsequent tests indicated the agents were "unknown substances, possibly pesticides."

On Monday, some soldiers who were at the scene and a reporter developed red blotches or rashes on their hands and faces.

The agricultural warehouse had been used to store pesticides. But when soldiers examined the building, they found weapons stacked to the ceiling. Three truckloads of arms - including rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and AK-47s - were removed from the site Monday.

Asked whether the substances tested Monday could be pesticides, Lynch said it was possible but added, "It's very suspicious because the barrels were freshly dug into the ground very hastily."

Lynch is the senior chemical adviser to the 101st Division's commander, Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus.

Brig. Gen. Benjamin Freakly of the 101st Airborne said in an interview on CNN: "The bunker, which had more than ten 25-gallon drums and three 55-gallon drums . . . tested positive for a nerve agent and for a blister agent.

"Now, this could be either some type of pesticides, because this was an agricultural compound. ... But on the other hand, it could be a chemical agent. Not weaponized. A liquid agent that's in drums."

Commanders said positive identification of the chemicals by the Fox detection vehicles must be confirmed by more sophisticated analysis. A scientific "mobile exploitation team," or MET, based at Udairi air field in northern Kuwait, was ordered to the suspicious site, but bad weather grounded the team's aircraft until this morning.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld echoed the caution, telling reporters, "Let the thing play itself out."

U.N. weapons inspectors destroyed some 76 tons of Iraqi tabun and 40 tons of sarin in the 1990s. But in 1999 the inspectors could not account for all the nerve agent known to have been produced, nor for all the thousands of 122mm rockets known to have been filled with sarin.

[Last modified April 18, 2003, 13:36:42]