Arabs linked to al-Qaida may have tested biological weapons in Iraq, U.S. official says

Tuesday, August 20th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CRAWFORD, Texas (AP) _ Arab terrorists with al-Qaida ties may have tested biological weapons at a small facility in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, a U.S. official said.

American intelligence agencies had reason to suspect that the facility, in a part of northern Iraq not controlled by President Saddam Hussein's government, was a kind of laboratory for chemical and biological weapons activity that included testing on barnyard animals and at least one man, the official said Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

U.S. officials believe the terrorists tested a biological toxin known as ricin, a deadly poison made from the castor bean plant.

The Defense Department has reviewed possibly taking military action against the site in northern Iraq because any time there is intelligence about production of weapons of mass destruction all options are considered, including military, a U.S. counterterror official said in Washington.

In a related development Tuesday, U.S. fighter jets bombed an air defense facility in southern Iraq near the city of al-Amarah, about 120 miles southeast of Baghdad, U.S. officials said. They said it was in response to ``Iraqi hostile threats and acts'' against U.S. and British pilots who enforce a ``no fly'' zone over southern Iraq. No other details of the threats or the attack were disclosed.

The Bush administration considered a covert military operation against the suspected bio-weapons facility in northern Iraq, but President Bush did not approve military action, ABC News' ``World News Tonight'' reported Monday.

Citing unidentified intelligence officials, ABC said that as U.S. surveillance of the weapons facility intensified, Bush administration officials concluded it was too small and crude to be worth risking American lives and the outcry among allies that might follow any U.S. action inside Iraq.

At the White House, a spokesman for Bush's National Security Council refused comment.

``As a matter of policy, we don't discuss whether something was or was not briefed to the president,'' spokesman Michael Anton said in Washington. ``We don't discuss military targeting _ whether something is, was or might be a military target.''

The official who privately discussed U.S. knowledge of the facility said it was operated recently by a small number of people connected to terrorists in Ansar al-Islam, an Arab organization with links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network. The official would not say whether the facility was still in operation.

U.S. intelligence agencies have no evidence that Saddam is linked to the operation, the official said.

The revelations put the Bush White House in an uncomfortable position, because the president has promised every audience he addresses that his administration will ``hunt the killers down one by one'' and prevent America's enemies from acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

``With the spread of chemical and biological and nuclear weapons, along with ballistic missile technology, freedom's enemies could attain catastrophic power. And there's no doubt that they would use that power to attack us and to attack the values we uphold,'' Bush told a group of conservative leaders from the International Democrat Union at a White House dinner in June.

``We will oppose the new totalitarians with all our power. We will hunt them down one by one and bring them to justice,'' Bush said.