The commander of U.S. Marines in Iraq says he is surprised that coalition forces have so far failed to find weapons of mass destruction in the country. Lieutenant General James Conway also says he hopes fresh coalition forces can relieve his Marines in the near future. General Conway briefed reporters at the defense department in a video teleconference hook-up from his headquarters in Iraq.
He says he is surprised coalition forces have not found any chemical or biological weapons as yet, just as he was surprised that Iraqi troops did not use them against U.S. and British troops during the war.
But General Conway also says it is too soon to deem the lack of discovery of such weapons an intelligence failure. He echoed comments of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld earlier this week, who said it is still possible U.S. troops will find someone with information that could lead them to hidden weapons. Secretary Rumsfeld also said it is possible the Iraqis destroyed their banned weapons before the war.
General Conway told reporters that he would like to get his Marines home at some point, since many of them have spent the last seven or eight months in the region. But he says that will depend on how quickly fresh coalition troops can be lined up to replace them.
"We do feel that when we leave, we will not be able to leave a void," said General Conway. "So, we very much may be dependent upon the arrival of additional coalition forces to relieve in place with us, and allow the Marines to go home."
The Marines are responsible for security in southern Iraq, roughly the area between the southern city of Basra and Baghdad. General Conway says his troops have encountered fewer problems than coalition forces have in and around Baghdad. But he says the Marines continue to take a tough stance on security.
"What we tell the Iraqis is that we are here to do a job," he said. "Don't get in our way, and nobody will get hurt; indeed, you will like the results. Interfere with our efforts, or threaten our forces in any way, and there will be consequences."
General Conway says about 1,000 Iraqi exiles have returned to southern Iraq from neighboring Iran since Saddam Hussein's regime fell. He described these elements as "fundamentalist," and says they are being watched closely. But he also says they have done nothing as yet that in his view poses a threat.