Report shows Iraqi insurgents are pursuing chemical weapons

Group seeking scientists was dismantled in June

October 10, 2004|By Bob Drogin | Bob Drogin,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - Insurgent networks across Iraq are increasingly trying to acquire and use toxic nerve gases, blister agents and germ weapons against U.S. and coalition forces, according to a CIA report, and investigators said one group recruited scientists and sought to prepare poisons over seven months before it was dismantled in June.

U.S. officials say the threat is especially worrisome because leaders of the previously unknown group, which investigators dubbed the "Al-Abud network," were based in Fallujah in proximity to insurgents aligned with fugitive militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The CIA says Zarqawi, who is blamed for attacks on U.S. forces and beheadings of hostages, has long sought to use chemical and biological weapons against targets in Europe as well as Iraq.

An exhaustive report released last week by Charles A. Duelfer, the CIA's chief weapons investigator in Iraq, concluded that Saddam Hussein destroyed his stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons in the early 1990s and never tried to rebuild them. But a little-noticed section of the 960-page report warns that the danger of a "devastating" attack with unconventional weapons has grown since the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq last year.

The Bush administration, which went to war primarily to disarm the Baghdad regime of suspected illicit stockpiles, has not previously disclosed that the insurgent groups that have emerged and steadily expanded since Hussein's ouster now are seeking to develop their own crude supplies of such deadly agents as mustard gas, ricin and the nerve gas tabun.

Neither of the two chemists who worked for al-Abud had any ties to Hussein's long-defunct weapons programs, and Duelfer's investigators found no evidence that the group's poison project was part of a "prescribed plan by the former regime to fuel an insurgency."

For now, the leaders and financiers of the network "remain at large, and alleged chemical munitions remain unaccounted," the report said. It added that other insurgent groups are "planning or attempting to produce or acquire" chemical and biological agents throughout Iraq, and warns that the availability of chemicals and munitions, as well as sympathetic former Iraqi weapons scientists, "increases the future threat."

The new discoveries are separate from several attacks this year involving chemical munitions, the report said. In May and June, insurgents used old chemical-filled artillery shells, left over from Iraq's pre-1991 stocks, in three roadside bombs. Partly because of the age of the weapons, no chemical injuries were reported. In all, U.S. forces have recovered 53 decaying chemical-filled shells or artillery rockets that apparently were looted from unguarded ammunition bunkers or other sites.

Investigators from Duelfer's Iraq Survey Group learned of the al-Abud threat by chance in March when a U.S. Army patrol raided a laboratory in a Baghdad market known for chemical supply shops. They discovered an Iraqi chemist who had successfully produced small quantities of ricin, a potentially deadly toxin made from castor beans.

After the chemist was interrogated, Duelfer quickly created a team of covert agents, analysts and weapons experts to track down the scientist's contacts and arrest other members of al-Abud, named for the lab where the chemist was found.

By June, Duelfer's team was able to identify and "neutralize" the group's chemists and chemical suppliers, and other members of the network. A series of raids, interrogations and detentions "disrupted key activities at al-Abud-related laboratories, safehouses, supply stores" and organizational centers.

The al-Abud effort apparently began in December last year, according to Duelfer's report, when Fallujah-based insurgents belonging mostly to the Jaysh Muhammad insurgent group recruited "an inexperienced Baghdad chemist" to help them produce tabun, mustard gas and other chemical agents. A wealthy Baghdad businessman who had business ties to Hussein's military and intelligence service agreed to provide financial backing.

Jaysh Muhammad, also known as the Army of Muhammad, is largely made up of former members of Hussein's Baathist party, including former officers in the intelligence, security and police forces, the report said. The group has claimed responsibility for several brutal attacks including the bombing of the United Nations compound in Baghdad on Aug. 19 last year.

The chemist discovered in the al-Abad market, who was not identified, soon helped the insurgent group acquire the pesticide malathion, which has a similar chemical structure to tabun, as well as nitrogen mustard precursors - or ingredients - from looted government supplies and chemical shops.

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