The Pentagon is preparing to intensify its hunt for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Officials plan to dispatch about 1,000 experts to the country, including some former U.N. weapons inspectors.
The stepped-up search will be conducted by the Iraq Survey Group, a largely civilian team that will be led by an as-yet unidentified general.
Pentagon sources tell VOA, the group will include scientists, technicians, intelligence experts and others. They will bring equipment that will enable them to conduct field analyses of chemical and biological samples.
The team will include members of the military's 75th Exploitation Task Force, which is already in Iraq and conducting a weapons hunt. Until now, this unit has taken samples from suspected weapons sites, and sent them out of the country for detailed study.
It is unclear when the expanded group will go to Iraq. Pentagon sources say security is a major consideration, because many of the experts, in the words of one official, are "national treasures not to be risked."
The disclosure of the Pentagon's intention to ramp up the hunt is clearly intended to knock down emerging suspicions that, because no weapons of mass destruction have been found so far, the Bush administration may be de-emphasizing Iraq's disarmament as one of the main reasons for the war.
Chief Pentagon spokesperson Victoria Clarke told reporters Wednesday such claims are wrong, whether they involve the hunt for weapons of mass destruction, fugitive Iraqi leaders and other mission objectives.
"I think, if you look at what we're doing, we continue to root out the remnants, whatever is left, of Iraqi regime influence, or whatever is left there that want to keep the Iraqi people from starting to rebuild their country," she said. "We want to find and destroy the WMD. We want to root out those terrorists that are there. We want to find intel (intelligence) on terrorist connections. And we want to help the Iraqi people transition to a more representative government."
Pentagon sources say the Iraq Survey Group will do more than just search for chemical and biological weapons. They say members of the team will also be involved in the hunt for terrorist connections in Iraq and evidence of war crimes committed by Saddam Hussein's ousted regime.
At the moment, defense officials say front-line troops in Iraq are first to have contact with suspected weapons sites or documents and other evidence.
They are usually followed by members of the specialized exploitation unit already in Iraq, who send in survey teams for further study.
The newer, larger group that plans to go in will follow up on some of the site visits already carried out. But Pentagon sources say they will also work off a list of suspect sites assembled by U.S. intelligence agencies. In addition, they will work off leads provided during the debriefings of Iraqi scientists, as well as tips from other Iraqis.
Speaking to Pentagon employees Thursday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says he believes Iraqis will provide the breakthrough clues.
"I don't think we'll discover anything, myself. I think, what will happen is, we'll discover people who will tell us where to go find it," he said. "It is not like a treasure hunt, where you just run around, hoping you find something. I just don't think that will happen. The [U.N.] inspectors didn't find anything, and I doubt we will."
If any chemical or biological weapons are found, Mr. Rumsfeld acknowledges, he is concerned some countries and critics will claim the United States planted them. He says the teams will take care to validate their finds, much the way evidence is handled in criminal cases, to ensure it is not tainted.
But Mr. Rumsfeld says critics will still tell what he terms lies, much like Iraq's discredited former information minister. He suggests there is little the administration will be able to do about it.