U.S. seeks staff of weapons program

Information that arms were destroyed before Iraq war prompts shift

Postwar Iraq

April 23, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SOUTH OF BAGHDAD, Iraq - Information supplied by an Iraqi scientist that Iraq destroyed chemical weapons and biological-warfare equipment before the war has shifted the focus from finding such weapons to locating key people who worked on the programs, experts and military officers said.

The effort to find the building blocks of a program for unconventional weapons and "dual use" equipment with military and peaceful applications has also taken on new urgency, experts said.

"The paradigm has shifted," said a member of Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha, a U.S. military team hunting for unconventional weapons in Iraq. "We've had a conceptual jump in how we think about, and what we look for, in Iraq's program. We must look at the infrastructure, not just for the weapons."

The team member spoke on condition of anonymity to a reporter accompanying the group.

Based on what the Iraqi scientist has said about weapons being destroyed or stocks being hidden, military experts said they believe they might not find large caches of illicit chemicals or biological agents, at least not in Iraq. The military experts said this would increase reliance in their search on documents and testimony from individual Iraqis to help them piece together the scope, organization and goals of the programs that the United States has said President Saddam Hussein created and concealed from the world.

U.S. officials said they had surveyed more than half of the 150 sites that U.S. intelligence organizations once considered the most likely places to hide unconventional arms and had found no stockpiles of deadly chemical or germ agents.

Members of the search team have joined other allied military forces in scouring Baghdad for scientists and military officers who worked in such programs, experts said. They are also re-examining lists of "dual use" equipment found at previous sites.

A second change in the operation involves how the teams are conducting searches. In theory, the 75th Exploitation Task Force, a mixture of military units from several Pentagon agencies and led by the commander of the 75th Field Artillery Brigade from Fort Sill, Okla., was supposed to deploy teams from task force headquarters to explore tips about a suspect site.

But Col. Richard McPhee, the commander, cannot move his task force close to Baghdad because of concerns about protecting its sensitive lab equipment. So he has permitted the teams to push forward on their own to get to what the military terms "time-sensitive targets."

Two of the four mobile teams originally assigned to search for unconventional weapons have been assigned to investigate war crimes or to investigate sites unrelated to weapons.

That leaves only two teams to investigate suspected weapons sites and tips. However, the number of junior teams involved in the weapons search has been expanded from four to seven, officials said.

Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha, which is close to Baghdad, is working with other military units and with locally based groups. On Sunday night, weapons experts from the Alpha team met with Ahmad Chalabi, an Iraqi opposition leader who has returned - with Pentagon backing - after 45 years in exile, to explore exchanging information.

Military planners and weapons experts say their experience with the Iraqi informant has underscored the need to respond quickly.

"The truth is not perishable," said Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne Division, which is supporting the team's weapons hunt. "But timeliness is important."

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