U.S. still investigating reports that WMD were shipped out of Iraq

Sunday, January 11, 2004

The White House has for now put to rest reports that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were smuggled out of the country by way of Syria in the months before the U.S. began its assault on the regime of Saddam Hussein.

However the language used by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice on Friday made clear that the administration is still investigating the reports.

"We're going to follow every lead on what may have happened here," Ms.Rice said.

Rice said the United States has not obtained what she termed credible and firm evidence that Iraqi WMD was smuggled to Syria in the weeks prior to the U.S.-led war in March 2003. Last year, the U.S. intelligence community said it had suspicions of such smuggling activities.

"Any indication that something like that happened would be a very serious matter," Ms. Rice said on Friday. "But I want to be very clear: We don't, at this point, have any indications that I would consider credible and firm that that has taken place. But we will tie down every lead."

The Bush administration issued the assessment Friday as the United States withdrew thousands of government personnel authorized to search for WMD in Iraq, Middle East Newsline reported. After nine months of efforts, the American team did not find biological, chemical or nuclear weapons.

The National Security Advisor's assessment differed with that of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, renamed the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

Agency director Lt. Gen. James Clapper, responsible for mapping and satellite images and analysis for the intelligence community, said the United States monitored a series of suspicious Iraqi vehicle convoys in late 2002 and early 2003 that could have been transporting WMD.

"We certainly feel there were indications of WMD activity," Clapper said in a briefing on Oct. 28.

Last week, Syrian opposition sources identified Iraqi WMD arsenals in Syria. The sources said the Iraqi nonconventional weapons were stored in Syrian Air Force facilities in the central part of the country.

"I don't think we are at the point that we can make a judgment on this issue. There hasn't been any hard evidence that such a thing happened. But obviously we're going to follow up every lead and it would be a serious problem if that, in fact, did happen."

[On Saturday, the Danish Army said troops found 36 120 mm mortar rounds buried north of the Iraqi city of Basra that appear to contain blister gas used in chemical weapons attacks against Iran in the 1980-88 war. The army said results of final tests were likely to be ready on Monday.]

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On Saturday, President Bashar Assad welcomed the new U.S. ambassador to Damascus, Margaret Scobey, in a meeting that included visiting U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a member of the Armed Services Committee. The Syrian news agency, Sana, said the two sides discussed ways to improve U.S.-Syrian relations.

In December 2003, President George Bush signed the Syrian Accountability Act, which paves the way for fresh sanctions on Syria in connection with its occupation of Lebanon, WMD programs and the harboring of groups deemed as terrorist.

In a related development, U.S. officials said Central Command has also found evidence that Russia sold advanced equipment to Iraq via Syria prior to the March 2003 war. They said the Russian exports to Iraq included night-vision goggles and radar-jamming equipment, both of which were used during the war. Officials said the jammers might have thrown U.S. missiles and smart munitions off-course.

Russia's Aviakonversiya has manufactured portable radar-jamming equipment with a range of up to 200 kilometers. The company has denied selling jammers to Iraq.

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