Vials hold explosives, not chemical weapons

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The Independent Online

American troops uncovered a hoard of boxes containing an unidentified white powder and other suspicious items yesterday in a sprawling military industrial plant south of Baghdad. But early suggestions that they had found the "smoking gun", exposing weapons of mass destruction, quickly faded.

American troops uncovered a hoard of boxes containing an unidentified white powder and other suspicious items yesterday in a sprawling military industrial plant south of Baghdad. But early suggestions that they had found the "smoking gun", exposing weapons of mass destruction, quickly faded.

By last night, US officials were indicating that the powder, rather than being a chemical or biological agent, was an explosive. The conclusion, though not final, seemed to dash coalition hopes that they had at last found evidence of weapons of mass destruction hidden in Iraq. "Initial reports are that the material is probably just explosives, but we're still going through the place," a senior US official in Washington acknowledged.

But there were unconfirmed reports that US Marines had detected concentrations of cyanide and mustard gas in the Euphrates river while testing to see if was drinkable. The reports, on MSNBC television, might show Iraq has been dumping the agents in the river to avoid their discovery.

Soldiers with the 3rd Infantry Division uncovered thousands of 2in by 5in boxes, each containing three vials of white powder, at the complex at Latifiyah. The also found supplies of a nerve agent antidote, atropine, as well as documents in Arabic giving guidance on chemical warfare.

The site, formally known as the Latifiyah Explosives and Ammunition Plant al-Qa'qa', is well known by United Nations inspectors who visited it many times in the weeks before the war. It was also identified in a British government dossier on Iraqi arms programmes last September. A spokesman for Hans Blix, the chief UN inspector, could not say if inspectors had been to the same precise location as the US troops. Nor would he comment on what the powder might be.

Separately, US troops also found what appeared to be a training centre for nuclear, chemical and biological warfare in Iraq's western desert. One bottle at the site was also labelled Tabun, a nerve agent thought to have been used by Iraq during its 1980-88 war with Iran. It seemed that the bottle was only a single sample, probably for training purposes.

Assuming the white powder at Latifiyah proves to be an explosive, British and American hopes of quickly finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, used as one of the principal justifications for the war, will have been frustrated again. America has been hunting for them from the start, with a list of 300 sites identified as most suspect by intelligence.

So far, advancing troops have found only indirect evidence that such weapons may exist. Last weekend, British troops uncovered training equipment for nuclear, biological and chemical warfare near Basra. It included protective suits, gas masks and nerve gas antidote.

In the first week of the war, The Jerusalem Post reported that a chemical weapons factory had been found at Najaf, the town 90 miles south of Baghdad. American officials troops found no evidence of chemical weapons.

Western intelligence has long suspected the al-Qa'qa' plant made weapons of mass destruction, particularly those based on phosgene gas.

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