Missile cache may be regime's elusive chemical weapons, claim US sources

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Allied experts were investigating a possible discovery of chemical weapons last night. The find could provide the evidence of weapons of mass destruction which had so far eluded the invading forces.

Allied experts were investigating a possible discovery of chemical weapons last night. The find could provide the evidence of weapons of mass destruction which had so far eluded the invading forces.

Twenty medium-range missiles were found by US forces close to Baghdad. An unnamed senior official with the 1st US Marine Division was quoted as saying that the missiles were equipped with nerve agents, sarin and mustard gas and were "ready to fire".

The source was further quoted as saying that US intelligence data suggested the chemicals were "not just trace elements".

The weapons cache was apparently found by US Marines travelling with the 101st Airborne Division as it followed the 3rd Infantry after it seized Baghdad International Airport.

There has been a series of finds of supposed chemical and biological weapons, which have turned out to be baseless. But US commanders have continued to express confidence that such weaponry would eventually be found. They suggested that the nearer forces got to Baghdad, the more probable it was that they would be discovered. A senior US Central Command officer, however, said last night: "We have had a lot of reports. We treat them all with caution. At the moment there is no proof."

In Washington last night Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, said: "Almost all first reports turn out to be wrong." He said that full investigation of finds "takes days" and added: "So we have to take our time. The prudent thing would be to let this thing play itself out."

In another discovery, drums containing toxic chemicals were found at two sites close to each other – an agricultural warehouse and a military compound, both at Hindiyah, close to Karbala. But doubt was cast on the find last night. Captain Adam Mastrianni was quoted as telling the French news agency AFP that the chemicals appeared to be insecticide and were not "the smoking gun".

The investigations started as US Central Command sources made it clear that the sweeping incursion into Baghdad by troops and about 70 tanks yesterday was not the first stage of an occupation of the city – though military sources made it clear that such incursions would continue. A senior US military source said that, although resistance appeared to be less intense than fighting encountered in the south-west of the capital on Saturday, "we are not intending to camp there".

But the tactical decisions about when and whether to withdraw or press ahead would lie with American commanders on the ground.

US forces put on a spectacular demonstration of power in Baghdad on the west side of the Tigris, storming one of Saddam Hussein's presidential palaces and briefly placing tanks outside the Information Ministry. The purpose of the incursion was to make it clear to the Iraqiregime that the days of its control were numbered "and to the people that we are here to free them and end the regime," said the US military source.

But he said that the main purpose had remained "to destroy Iraqi forces". He was unable to give details of Iraqi casualties.

The Baghdad incursion came as British forces pressed home their advance on the centre of Basra, Iraq's second city, with troops from the 3rd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment carrying out foot patrols and house-to-house searches through the narrow streets of the old city in an attempt to quell resistance by irregular pro-regime forces in the city. Last night, members of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment found an unspecified number of bodies in a 100-cell prison in the city.

Air Marshal Brian Burridge, commander of the British forces, said: "We must proceed carefully to reduce the risk to both the civilian population and to our own forces; this all takes time.'' He paid tribute to the British troops involved in the action, saying that "we are all very proud'' of what they had achieved.

Air Marshal Burridge said that after the people of Basra had spent decades "under the heel'' of the brutal Iraqi regime, British forces were now liberating them. "There will be some difficult days ahead but the Baathist regime is finished in Basra," he said.

In Baghdad, Colonel David Perkins, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division's second combat brigade – who led the first armoured raid on Saturday – declared in the garden of a palace seized by the US: "Right now we really have the centre of Baghdad, and what is the heart of its governmental structure. We can see a bunch of American soldiers standing at the entrance to the palace. It is a testament to the American soldier, what they have done to get here."

Brigadier General Vincent Brooks told a briefing at Central Command in Qatar that Monday's raid, in which US forces entered a presidential palace in Baghdad, increased his optimism. But he remained cautious. "It's very clear that we haven't finished our work so we're a long way from being able to celebrate victory," he said. "We continue to say the outcome is not in doubt but there's still work for us to do at this point."

Brig Gen Brooks said there were areas of Baghdad that had not yet been entered by US forces. "There are parts where the regime still has control – over particularly the population," he said, picking out the quarter known as Saddam City in the north-east of the capital.

As US forces sought to close the one gap remaining in its encirclement of the city, 3rd Infantry and other troops fended off attacks by Iraqi contingents roaming the edges of Baghdad's airport in a seven-hour battle that ended yesterday with 100 Iraqis killed but no US casualties.

Inside a VIP building at the airport, the troops found a hideaway believed to have been used by President Saddam. It featured a rose garden, a hand-carved mahogany door, gold-plated bathroom fixtures and an office with a false door that led to the basement, where soldiers found weapons.

Meanwhile, US Marines entered Baghdad yesterday after incurring heavy fire on the city's outskirts. As the US troops moved towards the city centre, Iraqi civilians were hiding inside their homes.

Two marines were reported killed and two wounded when their armoured troop carrier was hit by an artillery shell at a bridge spanning a canal in the outskirts of the capital, according to Lt-Col B P McCoy.

The marines advanced into the capital from the east and south-east by foot after the Iraqis blew apart a bridge. They had tried to make the bridge impassable by blowing out a span, digging out the embankment under the bridge and rigging it with explosives. On Sunday, marines took control of the bridge but were unable to cross it immediately.

Explosives experts ensured it was safe before allowing light vehicles to cross.