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Pentagon officials: U.S. may have found Iraq chemical weapons plant

From Jamie McIntyre
CNN


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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Pentagon officials on Sunday said the U.S. military has secured a facility in southern Iraq that may have been used to produce chemical weapons.

The officials cautioned that it was not clear what suspect materials may still be at the plant, which is located in Najaf, some 90 miles south of Baghdad.

The taking of the suspected chemical weapons facility was first reported by the Jerusalem Post, which said about 30 Iraqi troops, including a general, surrendered to U.S. forces of the 3rd Infantry Division.

The report also said the Iraqis tried to camouflage the facility by disguising it with sand-cast walls so that it would blend in with the surrounding desert and not be visible from the air.

At a press briefing in Qatar, senior U.S. commanders refused to confirm details of the report, but did say two Iraqi generals were in custody.

"I will not confirm that report," said Army Lt. Gen. John Abizaid. "We have an Iraqi general officer -- two Iraqi general officers -- that we have taken prisoner, and they are providing us with information."

Abizaid said it was too soon to say whether the U.S. forces had found weapons of mass destruction.

"We are continuing to look for weapons of mass destruction," Abizaid said. "We have received reports from various prisoners that have given us leads. Suffice it to say that we continue to look, but so far we haven't found any conclusive evidence. We are confident that we will find it."

While finding weapons of mass destruction is one goal of the U.S. military campaign, it is not the primary goal at the moment, according to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

"The task is to remove this regime and then go about the task of looking for weapons of mass destruction. At the present time, they're focused on winning the war," Rumsfeld told CNN's Wolf Blitzer earlier in the day.

The Jerusalem Post, which has a reporter embedded with U.S. troops, reported that a soldier was slightly wounded when a booby-trapped explosive went off as he was clearing the sheet metal-lined facility.

The newspaper account said the 100-acre complex is surrounded by an electrical fence, and that surrounding barracks "resemble an abandoned slum."

U.N. weapons inspection spokesman Ewen Buchanan said the inspectors are "not aware of a large scale chemical weapons facility near Najaf."

"But Iraq clearly has a large number of dual-use chemical facilities related to its petrochemical industry, which were being investigated prior to withdrawal of the inspectors," Buchanan said. "We are not aware of any significant dual-use chemical facilities in Najaf town."

EDITOR'S NOTE: This report was written in accordance with Pentagon ground rules allowing so-called embedded reporting, in which journalists join deployed troops. Among the rules accepted by all participating news organizations is an agreement not to disclose sensitive operational details.


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