News from Beirut May 30  2003   ...Search

US, allies to launch a fresh effort on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction

by Jim Mannion

WASHINGTON, May 30 (AFP) - The United States and its allies will launch a fresh effort next week to find Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, sending in a 1,300-member team to take up a hunt that has turned up no banned weapons and raised questions about the US rationale for going to war.

The Iraq Survey Group will shift the search from suspect sites compiled before the war to a more comprehensive intelligence gathering effort on the ousted regime of Saddam Hussein's illicit activities -- from weapons of mass destruction to terrorism and war crimes, officials said.

Major General Keith Dayton, a top Defense Intelligence Agency official who is leading the group, said he still believed the intelligence gathered before the war on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was "credible." "Do I think we're going find something? Yes, I kind of do," he told reporters. "Because I think there's a lot of information out there." "It's going to be a deliberate process, it'll be a long-term process as well. This is not necessarily going to be quick and easy, but it will be very thorough," he said.

The search for weapons of mass destruction has been carried out since the war by the 75th Exploitation Task Force which has gone to some 320 suspected weapons sites on a list of 900 compiled by US intelligence. Under the new effort, Dayton said the lists will be de-emphasized and greater emphasis will be given to searches directed by analysis of  intelligence gathered by the group.

"The goal is to put all the pieces together in what is appearing to be a very complex jigsaw puzzle," said Dayton, who is chief of the DIA espionage operations. Members of the group, which he said would number between 1,300 and 1,400 people, have been drawn from across the US government and from Britain and Australia. Part of the group will work out of Qatar because communications are better. Dayton will be in Baghdad as of Monday.

Only about 300 people will be involved in a search for weapons, not many more than the estimated 200 who are currently searching sites as part of the 75hth Exploitation Task Force, he said. Dayton characterized the new effort as a "significant expansion" in the hunt for weapons of mass destruction. But that will not be the group's exclusive mission.

It also will investigate war crimes, terrorism, prisoner of war and missing in action issues, he said. The failure to find banned weapons has raised doubts about US claims before the war that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons and was working to develop nuclear weapons. Iraq insisted it no longer had any weapons. US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged earlier this week it was possible that Iraq destroyed its weapons of mass destruction before the war.

Dayton contended that the fact that the suspect sites have yielded nothing did not mean that US intelligence was faulty. "Things may have changed in the interim time from when we first developed these sites as to location," he said.

"Things could have been either taken and buried, they could have been transported or they could have been destroyed. It doesn't mean they weren't there when we thought they were there," he said. US military commanders said they expected to be attacked with chemical and biological weapons during their three week blitz to Baghdad.

"It was a surprise to me then, it is a surprise to me now that we have not uncovered weapons as you say in some of the forward dispersal sites," Lieutenant General James Conway, the commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force said Friday.

"It is not for lack of trying. We've been in virtually every ammunition supply point between the Kuwaiti border and Baghdad. But they are simply not there," he told reporters in a video press conference from al-Hillah, Iraq. "Intelligence failure I think is too strong a word to use at this point," he said. But he said the military's best guesses about the likely course of  Iraqi actions "were simply wrong."

US coalition in Iraq ups the pressure on Iran

by Kamal Taha

BAQUBAH, Iraq, May 30 (AFP) - The US-led coalition in Iraq turned up the pressure on neighbouring Iran on Friday with a warning against Islamist hardliners it said were pouring in to destabilise the country. The announcement on coalition radio in Baghdad came on the heels of charges by US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Thursday that Tehran was shipping elite troops across the border into Iraq.

Washington has stepped up its criticism of Tehran's Islamic regime in recent days and US media reports have said the White House is mulling its own campaign to undermine Iran's clerical theocracy. The radio bulletin did not mention Iran by name but appealed to local Iraqis to inform the coalition of the identities and whereabouts of infiltrators it said were being controlled from abroad. "Fundamentalists under foreign command have entered Iraq with aggressive intent and it is in the interest of the Iraqi people to help the coalition," it said.

"Do what is right for your family, your neighbours and your future," it said. "If necessary the coalition can protect you and your family." A second report minutes later said coalition troops had carried out several operations in recent days against armed militias, though it did not specify where. "Iraqis and coalition forces have made many sacrifices to bring an end to the old regime, and that is why the coalition will not let radical groups destroy the freedom of the Iraqi people," the report said.

"The coalition will not accept the presence of armed groups without its authorisation, groups planning hostile actions against coalition troops, arms trafficking across Iraq's borders and any threats to the security and independence of Iraq."

A spokesman for the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI), which fiercely opposed Saddam Hussein's secular regime and was based in Iran until last month, denied the allegations. "It's completely untrue," he said in the city of Baqubah, the capital of  Diyala province along the porous border with Iran.

"We're all Iraqis and those who have come from Iran are sons of the country," said the spokesman, who declined to give his name. "We are not terrorists and we don't understand why the Americans are so hard with us."   SAIRI holds a seat on a fledgling committee established under US guidance to help pave the way for a future Iraqi government and its leader, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim, has been cagey about whether he wants an Islamic state in Iraq.

Delivering a prayer sermon in the Shiite holy city of Najaf on Friday, Hakim urged Iraqi political groups to work together to run post-war Iraq. "The Iraqi people must run their affairs," he said. "Political forces must shoulder their responsibilities in unity and with courage. They have an important choice to make."

The US-led coalition has cooperated with Shiite leaders in places like the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, which are now much calmer than lawless Baghdad. But a spate of attacks on US forces, mostly in rival Sunni Muslim regions where loyalty to Saddam still runs strong, have underlined the difficulties for the coalition's occupation of the country.

Iran has denied supporting the Badr Brigade, SAIRI's armed wing, and Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi on Friday said Washington was trying to strip Iraqis of their rights and impose a puppet government. "These countries have occupied Iraq and then they accuse us of  interfering," the minister said in Tehran.

"They want to strip Iraqis of their most basic right, which is to determine their future, prevent the Iraqis from choosing their own government and impose an American government." Washington has also accused Tehran of not doing enough to clamp down on al-Qaeda since May 12 suicide attacks in Saudi Arabia which killed eight US nationals.

New US consulate in Lebanon opens doors after 19-year closure

BEIRUT, May 30 (AFP) - The US consulate in Lebanon reopened Friday after a 19-year closure resulting from bomb attacks on the US embassy during the Lebanese civil war. At the dedication of the new facility in Awkar, northeast of Beirut, US ambassador Vincent Battle remembered the Americans and Lebanese who lost their lives in the war.

"Today, we mark what I hope will be a new chapter in US-Lebanese relations, one that celebrates peace and prosperity," Battle said. "This consular building is our small contribution to that return to normalcy, and a sign that American-Lebanese relations continue to grow," he added.

Battle, who noted that the United States was boosting its efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said Washington had "not lost the vision of a comprehensive settlement that would include Syria and Lebanon." Since 1984, US visa and other consular services for Lebanese have been handled in Damascus and Nicosia.

Battle pointed out that the new consulate would be able to issue Lebanese with visitors' visas to the United States. The US embassy in Beirut was struck by a suicide attack in 1983, which killed 63 people, and a car bomb in 1984, which left 16 people dead. It subsequently moved to Awkar.

US says suspect in murder of Iraq Shiites released in error

BAGHDAD, Iraq, May 30 (AFP) - US military forces last week mistakenly released an Iraqi suspected of being involved in the murder of thousands of  Shiite Muslims after the 1991 Gulf War, US Central Command said Friday. Mohammed Jawad al-Neifus was released from the Bucca Internment facility in Umm Qasr on May 18, Centcom said in a statement.

He was captured April 26 in the city of Hilla, not far from a recently discovered mass grave containing the remains of thousands of Shiites who were slaughtered after rising up against Saddam Hussein's regime after the 1991 war. "US military forces are solely responsible for his erroneous release and are conducting a thorough investigation to ensure no further recurrences.

"Coalition forces will use all means available to bring Neifus to swift justice and are offering a 25,000 dollar reward for information leading to his capture," Centcom said. It said he had been cleared for release by military lawyers because "there was nothing unusual about the story he told." It was not immediately clear how the US military learned of his suspected connection with the killings. Dozens of mass graves have been uncovered all over Iraq since the ouster of  Saddam Hussein's regime seven weeks ago.

According to some estimates, as many as 15,000 bodies are believed to be buried in graves discovered several weeks ago near the Mahawil military base, near the southern city of Hilla.

In a 14-page report, "The Mass Graves of Mahawil: The Truth Uncovered," the New York-based rights monitor Human Rights Watch cited eyewitness accounts that confirm the victims were killed during the suppression of the Shiite uprising in 1991. Farmers living close by offered accounts of the daily executions and burials they had witnessed in 1991.

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