WASHINGTON - Samples of suspected chemical agents found at an agricultural site in Iraq are being flown to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland to determine whether they are prohibited nerve and blister agents, defense officials said yesterday.
Preliminary tests indicated the presence of chemical agents, according to Col. Tim Madere, the senior chemical warfare officer for the Army's V Corps. But more sophisticated testing is needed to confirm any findings.
The tests at Aberdeen take about 72 hours to produce a final result.
The initial field tests registered on the high end for the likelihood of the agents, said a defense official who requested anonymity.
"It warrants doing the second test," the official said. "The samples are going to ... Aberdeen."
This will be the second time in as many weeks that the laboratory at the Army's Soldier Biological and Chemical Command at Aberdeen Proving Ground has been used to determine whether a sample from Iraq is one of Saddam Hussein's prohibited weapons of mass destruction.
Last week, a suspected chemical weapons agent sample seized by U.S. forces outside the city of Karbala tested negative after an analysis at Aberdeen, the official said. So far, no chemical or biological weapons have been found in Iraq.
The new samples are expected to arrive in coming days at the Aberdeen facility, the official said. They were taken from 20- and 55-gallon drums found by soldiers of the Army's 101st Airborne Division at an agricultural warehouse.
The warehouse is about two miles from a military training site in Hindiya, a town east of Karbala and about 60 miles south of Baghdad.
The Bush administration's main justification for its invasion of Iraq is its claim that Hussein has stockpiled biological and chemical weapons, in violation of United Nations resolutions, that terrorists could use against the United States or its allies.
Iraqi officials have long declared that all its banned weapons have been destroyed.
The samples brought to Aberdeen will be packaged and placed in a Thermos-like container by soldiers from the Army's Technical Escort Unit, a specialized response team based at the command. Some of the soldiers from the unit have been in Kuwait since the start of the war.
U.S. soldiers did find chemical protection gear at the Hindiya site, but there were no artillery shells or other weaponry that might be used for a chemical attack.
Brig. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley, deputy commander of the 101st Airborne, cautioned that the chemicals might turn out to be only pesticides, because papers discovered at the warehouse referred to mosquitoes and other insects.
The warehouse is near the Euphrates River, where mosquitoes breed in adjacent swamps. Pesticides had been stored at the warehouse in the past, military officials said, though U.S. soldiers also reportedly discovered a cache of conventional weapons at the site.
Col. Ted Newing, chief of staff for the Aberdeen chemical command, noted that field tests can provide false positive results.
Certain pesticides can also produce false positives.
The Aberdeen lab can determine the sample's molecular makeup and produce a conclusive finding by using high-tech equipment such as a mass spectrometer and nuclear magnetic resonance.
Newing said the characteristics of chemical warfare agents are unique and the tests can provide details on the sample's makeup. The command can also compare the possible agent to the known agents it keeps in its storehouse.
"We are in the business of analysis," Newing said. "We set a goal of 72 hours to determine whether it's a chemical warfare agent."