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Suspected Chemical Weapons Vans Inspected in Iraq

Aired April 14, 2003 - 12:19   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: CNN's Ryan Chilcote has been embedded with the 101st Airborne Division now since day one of this war; in fact, even before the war in their home base of Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Ryan's joining us now. He's got some important developments unfolding.
I think it's fair to say, Ryan, we can call this breaking news. Go ahead.

RYAN CHILCOTE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the 101st, Wolf, continues to inspect so-called sensitive sites. Sensitive sites are places where the U.S. believes that elements of an Iraqi chemical and biological weapons program may be hidden.

You'll recall that we discussed one such site near the city of Karbala, about 50 miles south of Baghdad, about a week ago, where the 101st believe they had either found a chemical agent or a high grade pesticide. A short while ago, I spoke with General Benjamin Freakly from the 101st Airborne. He has been tracking these issues. He gave me an update on where the 101st at the so-called sensitive sites. Let's listen to what he had to say.


BEN. BENJAMIN FREAKLY, U.S. ARMY 101ST AIRBORNE: We talked before, you and I, about the site there at Objective MURI (ph), where we found the suspected chemicals. Those turned out after further analysis, as you and I had talked about, not being chemicals. They were high grade pesticides.

But in Karbala, when we were fighting there with the 2nd Brigade, the 2nd Brigade found about 11 buried conexes (ph). Large metal 20 by probably 20-foot vans buried in the ground. They are dual-use chemical labs, biological and chemical. About 1,000 pounds of documentation were found in that. And they were close to an artillery ammunition plant.

So this is consistent with the Iraqi denial, former Iraqi leadership denial of doing anything, any wrongdoing. And yet here's major chemical lab facilities, 11 different large sized conexes (ph) buried in the ground, clearly marked so they could be found again. Dual use, chemical and biological. Close to an artillery factory that has empty shells. So we're exploring that further.

Again, a little too early to tell, but clearly new equipment. A lot of money in the 2000 to the 2003 time period been spent in that camp. Probably over $1 million worth of chemical capability found in these 11 conexes (ph). And we continue to develop that with better expertise.

CHILCOTE: And you found it a while ago, but what was new? Yesterday you had people looking at it or...

FREAKLY: No. I think -- you know when it was found in Karbala, the 2nd Brigade was fighting there. And as the 2nd Brigade stabilized Karbala, then it was determined that these conexes (ph) were found. They've had to have been dug up. And now the sense of sight teams that the military is using are using their expertise to pore through this.

And initial reports indicate that this is clearly a case of denial and deception on the part of the Iraqi government, and that these chemical labs are present. And now we just have to determine what, in fact, they were really being used for.


CHILCOTE: Wolf, inspecting these sites is both slow and complicated work. As you saw with the first site, they thought they were on to something. They had done a barrage of tests using various chemical tests to look at the agents that they had there.

I'm not even sure that we're that far with this new site. You probably noticed that the general never mentioned any specific chemical agents at those laboratories, what he is calling laboratories. So it is a bit early to jump to any conclusions about what they have found.

Obviously it would be nice to say this is this or that, but this is complicated business. It really requires several levels of testing. And that is what we have seen so far with the 101st.

They bring in one level of an inspection team, they come to some conclusions. Then they bring it up another level; they come to conclusions. Then they bring it up yet another level. I think we can expect to see the same kind of process; very slow and tedious process in the inspection of this new site -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Ryan. Just to review, so that our viewers are appreciative of what the news is here, before the war, when the U.N. inspectors under Dr. Hans Blix were going around looking for the so-called smoking gun, the Bush administration at that time raised the possibility that the Iraqis had what were called these mobile labs, these vans in which they could create weapons of mass destruction, whether biological or chemical weapons, that would then be put in artillery shells or rockets or missiles. They said it was really hard to detect these vans because they were mobile, they could be moved around and they could be easily concealed.

What you're reporting now, based on what this general from the 101st Airborne Division is telling you, is that they found what you say are 11 of these mobile vans, no actual agents, nerve agents or biological agents inside, but labs capable of producing chemical or biological agents. They were buried. And what is raising suspicion, it was very close to a plant that manufactures or has artillery shells. Is that a fair synopsis of what you're reporting?

CHILCOTE: That's absolutely right. I think there are a few things that have caught their attention here. First of all, he said that these vans, if you will, these mobile chemical and biological -- what he's referring to as mobile chemical and biological laboratories were buried.

Secondly, he's saying that the site where they were buried was marked so they could be simply found. And thirdly, he's saying that they are in close proximity to an artillery plant.

He didn't say that they found any chemical agent there. That's what's a little bit different about this from the previous sites that you and I have discussed. The previous sites, we were discussing chemical -- the possibility, the possible presence of chemical agents. But at no time did we ever discuss that those agents were weaponized.

This seems to be something a bit different. What he's talking about is a laboratory, that, at least if you follow his logic, would be able to produce chemical agents that could then be delivered, weaponized, if you will, in artillery shells.

That's very new, and that is exactly, like you said, what the United States was talking about during the U.N. inspection process. You are absolutely correct. They did say and did say several times to Hans Blix, the chief U.N. weapons inspector, that they believe Iraq may have these kind of vans. The general refers to them as conexes (ph), vans, mobile chemical and biological laboratories that could be moved around presumably to hide from inspectors.

So there's a lot of interest here with this at the 101st. Still, it's worth saying that that isn't necessarily the smoking gun yet. Obviously there's going to need to be more testing.

I think it's pretty clear that there's no one that would like to find elements of a chemical and biological weapons program more than the U.S. military. And when the U.S. military is slow to come to conclusions, there's probably good reason for that.

What he has said is that they found these things. They think it's suspicious. They're going to continue to inspect them -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And all this, Ryan, is unfolding near Karbala, just south of Baghdad. Not that far away. 101st Airborne Division clearly looking for these kinds of suspected sites.

Before I let you go, Ryan, he also said something else that was intriguing. He said they found a great deal of documentation buried at that site as well. What do you know about that?

CHILCOTE: Well, he said that there were -- if I'm not mistaken -- 1,000 pounds of documents buried at that time same site. I don't know any more than that. But I think what they're looking at there is, if all of these documents are in there, what exactly do they say? Are they, too, evidence of some kind of elements of a chemical and biological weapons program? I think if you take the trucks themselves, these vans that he says are buried in the ground alone, this could be -- those documents could be very useful in trying to piece together what they were used for. They could be extremely useful in that sense.

So we'll just have to see. One thousand pounds of documents, that's a lot of documents. And what that means is more time for inspection.

A lot of these obviously could be in Arabic. If they're in Arabic, they need to be translated. The U.S. Army has a limited number of translators, and you can be sure that they're going to use a lot of those resources right now to pore over those documents to try and find clues as to what exactly these -- what he's calling chemical and biological vans were to be used for -- Wolf.

BLITZER: That's literally a ton of documents. Ryan Chilcote for us. He's embedded with the 101st Airborne.

Important news. Breaking news. I think that's a fair assessment of what's unfolding right now. Ryan, thanks very much.


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