Army team probes suspected chemical plant

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SOUTH OF BAGHDAD – In the midst of a sandstorm that turned the landscape into moonscape, day into night, and night into pure blackness, a US Army sensitive site team arrived at the ammunition storage facility at Najaf Tuesday to investigate suspicions the complex had been used for chemical weapons.

The team – Site Survey Team 4 – from Fort Sill, Oklahoma, conducted tests inside the complex's bunkers. Lt. Robert M. Naspaugh, who managed the two-hour inspection, said, 'We did not get indicators that there are weapons of mass destruction at the site right now. However we only saw a small part of the site.'

The team, assisted by soldiers from the 2-7 Mechanized Infantry Battalion that took over the complex two days ago, did find numerous ammunition stores as well as chemical warfare protective gear.

Naspaugh said he is unaware of any previous visits to the site by UN weapons inspectors. The officers and soldiers, led by Lt.-Col. James Johnson, were concerned by the large number of artillery shells found by the complex because, according to Naspaugh, the main means of deploying WMD is artillery shells.

'We gave our description of the complex to the higher-ups of the Fifth Corps and the 75th Exploration Task Force at Fort Sills,' Naspaugh said. 'We will make our assessment of the complex to higher-ups. They will decide whether to send in another team that will come and take samples back to a laboratory that will use a gold standard. The only person who will announce such a finding is the president or the prime minister.

'I can't confirm or deny if there are chemical weapons here. In the bunker, we looked at, we found protective gear,' Naspaugh said, referring to chemical-resistant masks, suits, and gloves.

In the meantime, the US ground forces around Najaf are beginning to continue their push westward to Baghdad. Staying in fixed positions, the troops must deal with constant attacks against their encampments. This in turn involves contending with civilians who live nearby, who may be collaborating with or in fact are members of the Iraqi forces.

To contain the threat, the 2-7 Mechanized Infantry Battalion placed a barrier to prevent enemy forces from approaching them. At the barrier the troops contend with several attempted attacks by Iraqi forces, as well as civilians seeking medical and other humanitarian assistance.

'The situation is very bad for the soldiers,' said Capt. Sam Donnelly. 'Manning checkpoints is the work of peacekeepers, and we must maintain our combat mentality.'

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.

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