U.S. moves on major chemical facility in western Iraq

Thursday, April 10, 2003

U.S. forces are advancing on the western Iraq city of Al Qaim where a major chemical weapons facility remains under the control of the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Western intelligence sources said the facility, located near the Jordanian and Syrian borders, is believed to be the largest production facility of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The facility was reconstructed after the 1991 Gulf war.

Until today, the U.S.-led coalition has avoided capturing Al Qaim. The sources said Al Qaim remains protected by a large Iraqi Republican Guard and regular army force. The sources said regime officials heading for Syria probably have passed through the city.

"The thinking is that this would be a costly battle and with the fall of Baghdad, there might be another way to get these [Iraqi] troops to surrender," an intelligence source said earlier.

In response, Israel has decided to maintain its high state of alert in connection with the prospect of a missile or WMD strike from western Iraq.

Israel's Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said on Thursday that suspected WMD facilities in western Iraq have not yet been captured by coalition forces, Middle East Newsline reported.

"The threat has not been removed from the state of Israel," Mofaz said. "There are still sites around Iraq and in the west, from which there is a threat, albeit small. But the threat still exists."

"In the west, special operations continued against regime forces in the town of Al Qaim," Maj. Gen. Eugene Renuart, director of operations at U.S. Central Command, said today. "And this is an area that is strategically located on the route that joins Syria and Iraq, and it also is an area that is potentially for use by the launch for the launching of ballistic missiles."

South of Al Qaim, U.S. special operations forces entered the strategic town of Al Rutbah near the Jordanian border. Al Rutbah is the gateway of the flow of people and material from Jordan to Baghdad.

Earlier, U.S. Special Operations Forces took up positions near Al Qaim.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said coalition forces must secure Iraq's borders to prevent the flow of WMD materials and senior regime officials from the country. Rumsfeld said the United States is concerned that regime members may try to export weapons or WMD expertise to what he termed terrorist groups.

"And the thought that as part of this process, those materials could leave the country and in the hands of terrorist networks would be a very unhappy prospect," he said. "So it is important to us to see that that doesn't happen."

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