Karbala, April 7 (Reuters) : First tests on substances found at a military training camp in central Iraq suggest they contain a cocktail of banned chemical weapons, including deadly nerve agents, US officers said today.
Major Michael Hamlet of the US 101st Airborne Division said initial investigations of 14 barrels found in the camp yesterday revealed levels of nerve agents sarin and tabun and the blister agent lewisite.
He said the find could be the “smoking gun” which proved US and British charges that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had been hiding banned weapons of mass destruction — the central plank of their case for military action to overthrow him.
A team of experts would carry out further tests as early as tomorrow on the substances, discovered at the camp in Albu Mahawish, on the Euphrates river between the central Iraqi cities of Kerbala and Hilla, site of ancient Babylon.
“If tests from our experts confirm this, this could be the smoking gun. It would prove he has the weapons we have said he has all along,” Hamlet said. “But right now we just don’t know.”
The substances under investigation were found in three 55-gallon barrels and 11 25-gallon barrels, he said. He could not say whether the levels of each agent registered in the test were lethal doses. “They look like cocktails. They look like they’ve all got a bit of each in them,” said another officer.
Iraq is believed to have used sarin against Kurdish Iraqis in the 1980s.
The US invaded Iraq on March 20 to overthrow Saddam and prevent him using banned chemical weapons. Many other members of the UN opposed the attack, saying UN inspectors should be given more time to disarm Iraq. No chemical or biological weapons have yet been fired at US troops in 19 days of fighting, even after advance forces entered Baghdad in recent days. Some American soldiers have even been ordered to discard their chemical protection suits.
The US news station National Public Radio, reporting what appeared to be a separate discovery to the one in Albu Mahawish, said US forces found a weapons cache of around 20 medium-range missiles equipped with potent chemical weapons.
NPR said the rockets, BM-21 missiles, were equipped with sarin and mustard gas and were “ready to fire.”
It said the cache was discovered by Marines with the 101st Airborne Division, which was following up behind the army after it seized Baghdad’s international airport.
Officers from the 101st Division and the 3rd Infantry Division at the airport were unable to confirm the report. US Central Command headquarters in Qatar had no immediate comment.
On Saturday, a US officer said first tests of a suspicious white powder and liquid found on Friday in thousands of boxes south of Baghdad indicated it was not a chemical weapon.
Over the weekend, US Marines in the central Iraqi town of Aziziya began digging up a suspected chemical weapons hiding place at a girls’ school.
“We have always expected that this regime has chemical weapons and also possesses the will and means to use it,” Brigadier General Vincent Brooks told a news conference at Central Command in Qatar.
He said the US-led forces' advance inside the country had removed some of the means and its blizzard of leaflets and messages warning Iraqi commanders not to use weapons of mass destruction had removed much of the will.
There had also been strikes early on in the campaign, he added, against Iraqi missile capabilities — such as al Samouds — which could have delivered chemical or even biological weapons into neighbouring countries.