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Iraqi site yields more mystery containers

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 15, 2003

U.S. forces reported finding suspicious items at two Iraqi sites Monday, but top American officials said the search for weapons of mass destruction will take a long time.

In northern Iraq, a retired Iraqi air force engineer led U.S. paratroopers to several sites south of Kirkuk on Monday. They found about a dozen 20-foot-long missiles, more than two dozen large green tanks full of an unknown substance and crates of suits and masks designed to protect troops from chemical attack.

Much of the material was covered with camouflage netting, and there were some fake fiberglass missiles nearby that seemed designed to fool aerial observation.

Local Kurds said the farmland was owned by Ali Hassan al-Majid, a cousin of Saddam Hussein who was known as Chemical Ali for his suspected role in gassing thousands of ethnic Kurds in Iraq in 1988. A coalition airstrike apparently killed al-Majid on April 5.

Some of the missiles, which had booster tanks attached, were mounted on mobile launchers. The military later identified them as Soviet-made S-2 surface-to-air missiles.

Tahir Kareem, who walked into the municipal government building in Kirkuk to tell U.S. troops about the sites, said he was a Kurd who had retired in 1996 from the Iraqi air force.

"There are many things buried out here," he said, after leading a convoy of Humvees in his car to the location about 12 miles southwest of Kirkuk.

The sites were replete with abandoned bunkers that showed signs of having been recently inhabited by Iraqi troops. Green uniforms and helmets were discarded on the ground nearby.

"The weapons inspectors never would have found this stuff," said Lt. Col. Dominic Caraccilo, the battalion commander who led the team to the sites. "It would have taken 40 years."

Meanwhile, in southern Iraq, 11 containers buried close to an artillery ammunition plant were discovered by U.S. troops Monday and could be dual-use chemical and biological laboratories, U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Ben Freakley told CNN.

The 20-foot by 20-foot metal containers, which could be attached to semitrailer trucks or railway cars, were found by members of the 101st Airborne in Karbala. About 1,000 pounds of documentation was also found at the site, Freakley said. There was no evidence of weapons.

U.S. officials have generally downplayed initial finds related to weapons of mass destruction, as Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, vice director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did Monday when asked about the reports from Karbala. He said the find would be treated "very seriously" but added that he was aware of "no official estimation at this point" about the discovery.

Inspections have been conducted at only a fraction of the sites to be searched in the hunt for chemical, biological or nuclear weapons in Iraq, and the process is expected to continue for some time.

So far, no findings of weapons of mass destruction have been confirmed, officials said. But top U.S. and British leaders remain certain that the weapons exist and will be located.

Inspectors are concentrating initially on about 40 sites culled from a long list compiled over more than a decade, said David Kay, the former chief U.N. nuclear weapons inspector who served after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

The speed with which the work can be done, Kay said, depends on a number of factors that range from manpower and laboratory testing to the size and condition of the sites.

"To do the first 40 sites," said Kay, "you're probably talking at least a month and maybe longer, maybe six weeks."

-- Information from the Associated Press, Knight Ridder Newspapers and Cox News Service was used in this report.

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