'Huge' Suspected Chemical Weapons Plant Found in Iraq
Monday, March 24, 2003
Coalition forces discovered Monday a "huge" suspected chemical weapons factory near the Iraqi city of Najaf, some 90 miles south of Baghdad, a senior Pentagon official confirmed to Fox News.
Coalition troops are holding two Iraqi generals said to be in charge of the facility. Defense officials told Fox News that the officers are providing "good information" that could be crucial to searching out and dismantling Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program.
U.S. Central Command, which oversees the war in Iraq, said in a statement that troops were examining several "sites of interest," but said it was premature to call the Najaf site a chemical weapons factory.
The Jerusalem Post ran a story earlier Sunday that was written by a journalist on-hand with the U.S. unit -- the 1st Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division -- that took the plant.
The article states that one soldier was lightly wounded when a booby-trapped explosive was triggered as he was "clearing the sheet metal-lined chemical weapons production facility."
The chemical plant is described as a "100-acre complex," surrounded by an electrical fence. The plant was also apparently camouflaged to avoid aerial photos being taken.
It is not yet known what chemicals were being produced at the plant.
Asked at a news conference in Qatar Sunday about reports of the chemical plant, Lt. Gen. John Abizaid of U.S. Central Command declined comment. He said top Iraqi officers have been questioned about chemical weapons.
"We have an Iraqi general officer, two Iraqi general officers that we have taken prisoner, and they are providing us with information," Abizaid said.
The Jerusalem Post report also states that immediately following coalition entry into the camp, at least 30 Iraqi soldiers and their commanding officer fully obeyed instructions given by U.S. soldiers by lying down and surrendering.
U.S. forces are checking other sites based on leads from captured Iraqis and documents -- but officials cautioned it was premature to conclude any forbidden weapons had been located.
American special operations forces found documents in western Iraq that also could lead to chemical or biological weapons facilities, said Gen. Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Myers said U.S. commandos found the papers along with a cache of millions of rounds of ammunition after a firefight on Saturday, and the discovery "might save thousands of lives if we can find out exactly where and what they have."
"I just know that they have some papers that they want to exploit as quickly as possible, and we're going to do that, of course," Myers said.
President Bush and other U.S. officials say ridding Saddam's regime of chemical and biological weapons is the main objective of the war. Finding such weapons would be a huge boost for Bush, since much of the international criticism of the U.S.-led war has focused on the fact that United Nations inspectors had not found any banned weapons in Iraq.
Iraqi officials have insisted that they destroyed all of the chemical and biological weapons they made after the 1991 Persian Gulf War -- a claim U.N. weapons inspectors have questioned.
U.N. weapons inspectors are not aware of any large-scale chemical sites which could be used to make chemical weapons in Najaf, said Ewen Buchanan, spokesman for the inspectors. However, there are many such dual-use sites in other parts of the country because of Iraq's petrochemical industry.
U.N. inspectors visited a cement plant in the Najaf area earlier this year to check on its explosives cache but did not report finding anything improper. A team of biological weapons inspectors also visited a university and school in Kufa, a few miles north of Najaf.
Fox News' Bret Baier, Ian McCaleb and The Associated Press contributed to this report.