Frustrated, U.S. Arms Team to Leave Iraq

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By Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 11, 2003

BAGHDAD -- The group directing all known U.S. search efforts for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is winding down operations without finding proof that President Saddam Hussein kept clandestine stocks of outlawed arms, according to participants.

The 75th Exploitation Task Force, as the group is formally known, has been described from the start as the principal component of the U.S. plan to discover and display forbidden Iraqi weapons. The group's departure, expected next month, marks a milestone in frustration for a major declared objective of the war.

Leaders of Task Force 75's diverse staff -- biologists, chemists, arms treaty enforcers, nuclear operators, computer and document experts, and special forces troops -- arrived with high hopes of early success. They said they expected to find what Secretary of State Colin L. Powell described at the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 5 -- hundreds of tons of biological and chemical agents, missiles and rockets to deliver the agents, and evidence of an ongoing program to build a nuclear bomb.

Scores of fruitless missions broke that confidence, many task force members said in interviews.

Army Col. Richard McPhee, who will close down the task force next month, said he took seriously U.S. intelligence warnings on the eve of war that Hussein had given "release authority" to subordinates in command of chemical weapons. "We didn't have all these people in [protective] suits" for nothing, he said. But if Iraq thought of using such weapons, "there had to have been something to use. And we haven't found it. . . . Books will be written on that in the intelligence community for a long time."

Army Col. Robert Smith, who leads the site assessment teams from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, said task force leaders no longer "think we're going to find chemical rounds sitting next to a gun." He added, "That's what we came here for, but we're past that."

Motivated and accomplished in their fields, task force members found themselves lacking vital tools. They consistently found targets identified by Washington to be inaccurate, looted and burned, or both. Leaders and members of five of the task force's eight teams, and some senior officers guiding them, said the weapons hunters were going through the motions now to "check the blocks" on a prewar list.

U.S. Central Command began the war with a list of 19 top weapons sites. Only two remain to be searched. Another list enumerated 68 top "non-WMD sites," without known links to special weapons but judged to have the potential to offer clues. Of those, the tally at midweek showed 45 surveyed without success.

Task Force 75's experience, and its impending dissolution after seven weeks in action, square poorly with assertions in Washington that the search has barely begun.

In his declaration of victory aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, President Bush said, "We've begun the search for hidden chemical and biological weapons, and already know of hundreds of sites that will be investigated." Stephen A. Cambone, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday that U.S. forces had surveyed only 70 of the roughly 600 potential weapons facilities on the "integrated master site list" prepared by U.S. intelligence agencies before the war.

But here on the front lines of the search, the focus is on a smaller number of high-priority sites, and the results are uniformly disappointing, participants said.

"Why are we doing any planned targets?" Army Chief Warrant Officer Richard L. Gonzales, leader of Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha, said in disgust to a colleague during last Sunday's nightly report of weapons sites and survey results. "Answer me that. We know they're empty."


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