U.S. still searching for chemical weapons

WASHINGTON (AP) – U.S. special operations troops combing Iraq for Scud missiles and chemical or biological weapons have found none so far, a senior American military officer said Saturday.

Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, vice director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Pentagon news conference that the Iraqis have not fired any Scuds and that U.S. forces searching airfields in the far western desert of Iraq have uncovered no missiles or launchers.

Iraq denies having any Scuds, which have sufficient range to reach Israel, but Gen. Tommy Franks, who is running the war, said Saturday that Iraq has yet to account for about two dozen Scuds that United Nations inspectors have said were left over from the 1991 Gulf War.

Iraq also denies it holds any chemical or biological weapons. McChrystal said the United States will either bomb any such weapons it should find or seize them with ground forces, whichever is safer. He and other officials refused to say where in Iraq those searches are happening.

Also Saturday, the U.S. military abandoned plans to open a northern front against Iraq that would have sent heavy armored forces streaming across the Turkish border.

Two U.S. defense officials said dozens of U.S. ships carrying weaponry for the Army’s 4th Infantry Division will head to the Persian Gulf after weeks of waiting off Turkey’s coast while the two countries tried to reach a deal.

McChrystal said that even without the 4th Infantry, “there will be a northern option.” He would not say what that might be. Other officials said Army airborne troops might join small numbers of U.S. special operations forces already on the ground in northern Iraq, where American officials fear clashes between Turkish forces and Iraqi Kurds.

Although U.S. officials on Friday said all 8,000 soldiers in Iraq’s 51st Mechanized Division in southern Iraq has surrendered, McChrystal said Saturday that only the unit’s commanders gave themselves up. The rest simply left the battlefield or were “melting away,” he said.

McChrystal said the number of Iraqi prisoners of war was between 1,000 and 2,000. In describing overall progress in the war, McChrystal said American and British forces have hit Iraq with 500 cruise missiles and several hundred precision-guided bombs over the past day. The use of air-launched cruise missiles in Friday’s attacks was the first since the war began.

Warplanes flew 1,000 missions from aircraft carriers and air bases in the region, he said. Iraqi soldiers, “including some leadership,” are surrendering and defecting in large numbers, Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clarke said.”It is only a matter of time before the Iraqi regime is destroyed and its threat to the region … is ended,” she said.

Northern Iraq is an important battleground because of the Kurdish presence in enclaves not controlled by the Iraqi government. Turkey fears the Kurds will seize the northern oil fields or establish an independent state, thus complicating Turkey’s conflict with its own Kurdish minority.

The Pentagon wanted to put a heavy armored force into northern Iraq and had designated the 4th Infantry for that mission. The only feasible avenue for them to reach northern Iraq was from bases in Turkey, an option foreclosed by the Turkish government.

With U.S. ground forces advancing toward Baghdad, Pentagon officials expressed concerns the troops might come across Republican Guard troops armed with chemical weapons. “We would be hopeful that those with their triggers on these weapons understand what Secretary Don Rumsfeld said in his comments yesterday: ‘Don’t use it. Don’t use it.'”

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