US weapons team ends its search with no discovery

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The Independent US

The team searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is ending its operation without having found proof that Saddam Hussein had stocks of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

The team searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is ending its operation without having found proof that Saddam Hussein had stocks of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

It investigated numerous sites identified by US intelligence as those likely to harbour weapons of mass destruction (WMD) but has now all but accepted that it is unlikely to find any weapons. Operations are being wound up and a scaled-down unit called the Iraq Survey Group will take over.

The leader of the US Army's 75th Exploitation Task Force, Colonel Richard McPhee, said his team of biologists, chemists, computer experts and documents specialists arrived in Iraq believing the intelligence community's warning that Saddam had given "release authority" to those in charge of a chemical arsenal.

"We didn't have all those people in protective suits for nothing," he told The Washington Post. "[But if they planned to use those weapons] there had to have been something to use and we haven't found it. Books will be written on that in the intelligence community for a long time."

Saddam's alleged possession of such weapons was one of the central pretexts given by Washington and London for the war against Iraq. In a February presentation to the UN, Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, identified sites he said were producing WMD.

When George Bush made his declaration of victory aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln on 1 May, he said: "We've begun the search for hidden chemical and biological weapons and already know of hundreds of sites that will be investigated."

Some progress has been made. It was reported on Thursday that a team of experts searching for WMD had concluded that a trailer found near the city of Mosul in northern Iraq last month was a mobile biological weapons laboratory. The team admitted, however that other experts disagreed. Some officials claim that up to three such laboratories have been discovered although no biological or chemical agents have been found at any of them.

Yesterday, General Richard Myers, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, said WMD might still be in the hands of Iraqi special units.

"Were they full-deployed and could they have been brought to bear on us, or are they still perhaps out there somewhere in some sort of bunker and could have been used?" he said at the US regional headquarters in Qatar. "We are trying to run that one to the ground."

But those on the ground appear more sceptical. US central command started the war with a list of 19 priority suspected weapons sites. All but two have been searched without uncovering any evidence. A further 69 were identified as sites that might offer clues to the whereabouts of WMD. Of these, 45 have been searched without success.

Some experts believe that one of the problems has been that WMD search teams were held back for too long, allowing Iraqi forces to dismantle or destroy equipment. Others believe that the assessment that such weapons existed was wrong. One Defence Intelligence Agency official said: "We came to bear country and we came loaded for bear and we found that the bear was not here. The question was 'where are Saddam Hussein's chemical and biological weapons?' What is the question now? That is what we are trying to sort out."

The search for WMD will continue under the auspices of the Iraq Survey Group, which will also hunt for information about Saddam's regime. The White House has claimed this is a bigger unit than the task force. But officials admit that the number of staff hunting for weapons will be scaled back.

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