Washington, May 8 (Reuters): US forces in Iraq have found a trailer built by the toppled government of President Saddam Hussein as a mobile biological weapons laboratory, the US said today.
Undersecretary of defence for intelligence Stephen Cambone stopped short of calling the big truck a “smoking gun” proving US charges that Iraq produced weapons of mass destruction, telling reporters that sophisticated production equipment had been found inside the vehicle but no germ agents.
It was the first time US officials have said they have found firm evidence of such an Iraqi weapons programme, which was cited before the war as a justification for the invasion to oust Saddam.
The trailer was found on April 19 in northern Iraq and will soon be taken apart and minutely examined in Baghdad, Cambone told a Pentagon briefing.
“While some of the equipment on the trailer could have been for purposes other than biological weapons agent production, US and UK tactical experts have concluded that the unit does not appear to perform any function beyond ... the production of biological agents,” he said.
Cambone said the “mobile production facility,” painted military green, was similar to 18 that the US believes the former Iraqi government built.
He said the vehicle was taken over by US forces at a Kurdish checkpoint near the town of Tall Kayf.
It was found on a heavy-equipment transporter typically used for carrying tanks, he said.
Navy vice-admiral Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defence Intelligence Agency, said Iraqi sources have said three types of biological weapons were produced in such mobile laboratories: anthrax, botulism and staphylococcus.
But Cambone said the trailer “has had a very caustic substance washed through it,” perhaps ammonia.
Aboard the trailer was equipment that can be used to make biological weapons — living microorganisms or biological toxins used deliberately to spread disease — including a fermenter that could help produce germ warfare agents, he said.
Other equipment included gas cylinders to supply clear air for agent production and a system to capture and compress exhaust gases to evade detection of weapons production. “As time goes by, I’m sure we’re going to discover that the WMD programmes are as extensive and as varied as the secretary of state reported in his February address,” Cambone said.
”We are poring through documents, we are talking to people, and more of this is going to come to the surface as time goes by. It is a tough, laborious process.”
Cambone said the truck was very similar to those described by an Iraqi defector who has helped U.S. officials understand the Iraqi weapons program.
That information was used by Powell when he described the alleged mobile weapons labs to the U.N. Security Council in an unsuccessful February attempt to win approval from the world body for the subsequent U.S.-led invasion.
U.S. officials have accused the Iraqis of using mobile laboratories to produce germ warfare agents amid ongoing international inspections to avoid detection and to get weapons near to where they would be used. Iraq agreed after the 1991 Gulf War to give up any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons programs.
Cambone said that U.S. forces and experts had so far gone to about 110 sites in Iraq suspected of being associated with weapons of mass destruction and still had hundreds more to inspect.