The Washington Times

Mobile lab might be for Iraqi arms

May 3, 2003
Section: NATION

Page: A05


U.S. intelligence agencies are investigating a mobile laboratory discovered recently in northern Iraq that appears to be a transportable biological or chemical weapons facility, defense officials said.

Additionally, investigators in Iraq also have discovered what appear to be chemicals used in making chemical weapons, according to defense and intelligence officials.

The mobile lab was discovered near Mosul, in the north, last week and matches the description of Iraq's mobile weapons laboratories that were highlighted by senior Bush administration officials in the buildup to the war in Iraq.

Military forces manning a checkpoint seized the truck after discovering it was filled with equipment.

"It appears to be a road-mobile weapons laboratory," said a senior U.S. official on the condition of anonymity.

"It's still being evaluated," said a defense official, who noted that the results of the evaluation are expected soon.

The lab was described by officials as a tractor-trailer vehicle outfitted with equipment.

The Bush administration has held off from going public with the recent find because of several cases in which suspected weapons of mass destruction were found to have been unrelated to Iraq's chemical and biological weapons program.

Several drums of chemicals and other equipment, including buried shipping containers, turned out to have been harmless, even though initial tests showed signs of chemical or biological weapons.

The recent discovery of 12 55-gallon drums and suspected weapons labs near the town of Baiji turned out to be a decontamination facility and storage containers used for other purposes.

The Los Angeles Times first reported the van discovery on Tuesday.

Officials said the vehicle appears to be one of the 18 mobile laboratories mentioned by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell during a presentation to the United Nations Security Council before the war in Iraq.

One official said the mobile lab appeared not to have been put into use by the Iraqis.

However, officials said they were optimistic that the van could be the first proof of Iraq's covert weapons program.

In London yesterday, British Defense Minister Geoffrey Hoon said the hunt for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction will be difficult because the now-ousted regime of Saddam Hussein has hidden its banned arms.

"We've always made clear that the effort to locate and precisely identify weapons of mass destruction would take some time," Mr. Hoon told reporters during a meeting with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Mr. Powell said in a detailed intelligence briefing at U.N. headquarters in New York on Feb. 5 that Iraq's mobile laboratories are "one of the most worrisome signs" regarding Iraq's effort to make biological weapons.

"We know that Iraq has at least seven of these mobile, biological agent factories," Mr. Powell said. "The truck-mounted ones have at least two or three trucks each. That means that the mobile production facilities are very few perhaps 18 trucks that we know of. There may be more. ... Just imagine trying to find 18 trucks among the thousands and thousands of trucks that travel the roads of Iraq every single day."

Mr. Powell said the mobile biological laboratories were based on rail flatcars and on trucks and "are designed to evade detection by inspectors."

He said the mobile laboratories were described by at least three eyewitnesses in Iraq, including an Iraqi chemical engineer who supervised one of the vans.

The engineer "actually was present during biological agent production runs," Mr. Powell said. "He was also at the site when an accident occurred in 1998. Twelve technicians died from exposure to biological agents."

Mr. Powell said the Iraqis wanted to use the mobile labs in order to conceal them and to be able to move them easily by disguising them as trucks that can be parked in garages, or moved on the thousands of miles of Iraqi roads and railroad tracks.

Mr. Powell said the mobile labs were "sophisticated facilities" that could be used to make anthrax or botulinum toxin.

"In fact, they can produce enough dry, biological agent in a single month to kill thousands upon thousands of people," he said. "A dry agent of this type is the most lethal form for human beings."