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Thursday, April 10

Troops discover lab equipment, weapons at Karbala plant

By Matthew Cox, Rob Curtis | Military Times

KARBALA, Iraq - Troops with the 101st Airborne Division have unearthed 11 steel shipping containers, filled with sophisticated lab equipment, that were buried on the grounds of a chemical plant here.

The equipment, discovered Wednesday at the Karbala Chemical plant by troops from the 326th Engineer Battalion, included both computers and a spectrometer, a machine used to analyze chemical compounds. Also found was a 750-pound centrifugal pump that was made in Finland and originally shipped to a company in Jordan that makes plastic drinking cups.

On Thursday, a team of civilian and military chemical experts cordoned off the chemical plant while it assessed the discovery. Although the team did not immediately find proof of chemical weapons production, the site was considered an important discovery.

"This is significant,'' said Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Richard Gonzales, 33, the officer in charge of the team. "We would not be here if it was inconsequential.''

Chemical specialists who joined the troops in unearthing the containers estimated that they hold about $1 million of new lab equipment. Hasmik Egian, a spokeswoman for the U.N. Oil for Food program office in New York, which has controlled imports to Iraq, could not immediately determine whether the equipment had been shipped legally.

"It is important not to rush to any conclusions,'' said Maj. Brad Bartelt, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar. "As the operation continues, we are using numerous methods to identify and look for any Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.''

U.N. weapons inspectors visited the immediate vicinity of the chemical plant on Feb. 23 and did not find the buried equipment, according to Ewen Buchanan, a U.N. spokesman.

Buchanan said 13 U.N. weapons inspectors spent five hours at an adjacent munitions factory, the Karbala Loading and Filling Plant, on Feb. 23. The plant filled 155 mm artillery shells and 122 mm and 130 mm rockets with explosives, he said.

The U.S. government contends that the Iraqis are capable of delivering chemical weapons via artillery and rockets.

Signs of activity

Wednesday's find came less than a week after chemical soldiers found traces of what they thought were the nerve agent sarin and a blister agent at a pesticide plant less than 10 miles away. The same team of chemical experts took samples of the agents and sent them back to the United States for further testing.

Gonzales, however, believes those findings were false readings. "The pesticide plant was a dry hole," he said.

The Karbala Chemical plant is believed to have been bombed during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, but Gonzales said there are signs of ``an active lab that has been used recently.''

"We knew it was there; we just didn't know what was in it,'' said 1st Lt. Elena Araujo, 25, of Bellevue, Wash., a platoon leader in the 63rd Chemical Company. Araujo described finding what looked like large stocks of sulfur and distilled water in open containers in the facility's lab.

U.N. weapons inspectors, while visiting the adjacent arms factory last month, noted construction of a plant they believed could manufacture sulfuric acid, Buchanan said.

Weapons cache

Troops at the chemical plant said they also found office equipment and documents on Baath Party letterhead in the steel containers.

Also found were chemical protective mask filters on the ground outside one of the plant's buildings. Inside the building were dozens of orange hand grenades scattered among loose ammunition, and military uniform items such as black berets.

In addition to the grenades, soldiers found a cache of 225 60 mm mortar rounds, 40 rocket-propelled grenades and about 100 artillery fuses.

Gonzales said the exploitation team could be at the site for up to 72 hours and will also excavate other suspicious sites at the plant.