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Sunday, March 23

Pentagon still searching for Iraqi weapons cache as danger grows

By Derrick DePledge | GNS

WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Sunday that the Pentagon had seen no evidence so far that Iraq had used weapons of mass destruction, but cautioned that the danger to U.S. and coalition soldiers would grow as they get closer to Baghdad.

Rumsfeld and other Pentagon leaders stressed that it was too soon in the war to expect many discoveries but remained confident that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons. "The task is to remove this regime and then go about the task of looking for weapons of mass destruction," he said on CNN. "At the present time, they’re focussed on winning the war."

Iraq’s alleged weapons’ stockpile was the central argument, along with the country’s suspected links to international terrorism, in President Bush’s justification for a pre-emptive military strike. U.N. weapons inspectors were unable to find conclusive evidence of chemical or biological weapons in the weeks leading up to the war, although inspectors also contended that there were gaps in the amount of information, and cooperation, provided by the Iraqis. Iraq has denied it has such weapons.

The Pentagon has repeatedly warned Iraqi military commanders of extreme consequences, including prosecution for war crimes, if they released chemical or biological weapons in battle or against the Iraqi people. Rumsfeld and coalition military strategists were relieved when one of their worst scenarios - that Iraq would launch a chemical or biological attack on ground forces amassed in Kuwait - never materialized. Iraq instead fired a handful of conventional ballistic missiles, two of which were intercepted by the Patriot missile defense system, and coalition troops moved quickly across the border.

"It may be too early to know, but it’s not too early to start asking questions," said William Hartung, a senior fellow who studies the military at the World Policy Institute at the New School University in New York City.

The Bush administration, he said, could be damaged in the international community if it turns out that Iraq has little or no chemical or biological capabilities because the threat was cited as a reason for a war. In the United States, Hartung said, it may not have much of a political impact if coalition forces are successful at removing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power and establishing a stable new government.

"If a lot of other things went wrong, this could come back to haunt them," Hartung said.

Rumsfeld said he had seen intelligence over several months that chemical and biological weapons had been dispersed in Iraq and, in one case, command-and-control procedures were in place.

Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Sunday that special forces in western Iraq had recovered an arms cache and some information that was being investigated, but would not be more specific.

The Pentagon expects to learn more about Iraq’s weapons program once coalition forces are in control in Iraq and are able to interview Iraqi scientists and military commanders. "There is no doubt in my mind, from all the intelligence that we’ve seen, from what we’ve known that the regime has had before, that the Iraqi regime has chemical and biological weapons," Myers said in an interview with Fox News.

President Bush, just after he returned to the White House from a trip to Camp David, reaffirmed that the goal of the war is to "rid Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction, and to free the Iraqi people from the clutches of a brutal dictatorship."

Kenneth Warren, a political science professor at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Mo., said there is now broad public support for the war, but he believes it is soft and partisan. He said public opinion could change if it appears that the Bush administration exaggerated Iraq’s possession of, or its ability to deploy, chemical or biological weapons.

"If we don’t find weapons of mass destruction," Warren said, "our image will be mud."