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US Hunt for Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction Appears to be Winding Down - 2003-12-22

U.S. military units leaving Iraq in the coming weeks will take their decontamination equipment with them and soldiers will turn in personal protective gear against chemical or biological weapons attack. Coupled with word that the man leading the search for Iraq's stockpile of weapons of mass destruction may soon leave his post, the weapons hunt appears to be winding down.

Pentagon spokesmen would not say if they are concerned that insurgent forces in Iraq might draw from hidden stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons to attack U.S.-led coalition troops.

But they say those troops still have to be prepared for any contingency, even though search teams have failed to uncover any Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, one of the main reasons coalition forces invaded early this year to topple Saddam Hussein's regime.

During the early days of the war, American soldiers were often seen wearing protective gear designed to shield them if Iraqi forces used chemical or biological weapons.

Speaking just before the fighting began, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld voiced clear concern Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein might order an attack with such deadly munitions. "He [Saddam] claims to have no chemical or biological weapons, yet we know he continues to hide biological and chemical weapons, moving them to different locations as often as every 12 to 24 hours, and placing them in residential neighborhoods," he said.

Mr. Rumsfeld continues to insist pre-war U.S. intelligence about Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction was accurate and that these weapons will eventually be found.

But these days, the threat appears much diminished. Pentagon officials will not discuss what level of chemical, biological or nuclear readiness at which soldiers are operating. But given that U.S. troops are no longer seen wearing gas masks, special oversuits or other protective equipment it is believed they are at level zero, where nothing is worn - but should be, in the military's words, "readily available."

The Voice of America has learned troop units leaving Iraq in the weeks ahead will take their decontamination materials with them. Individual soldiers will turn in their personal protective gear, which will be sent back to the United States.

Pentagon officials reject suggestions there is a link between these moves and the lack of success in finding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

They say fresh military units arriving in Iraq as replacements in the new year will bring their own decontamination equipment. They also say replacement soldiers will receive individual protective gear.

These officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, insist every U.S. soldier in Iraq has access to protective equipment to respond, if necessary, to any potential threat.

But a senior defense source has told VOA at least some troops have arrived in Iraq without gas masks and protective suits designed to help soldiers survive chemical, biological or radiological attack.

This source also says there is inadequate decontamination equipment in Iraq to deal with the clean-up of hazardous materials, like the radioactive components found in hospital X-ray and other machines.

In the meantime, U.S. officials say chief weapons hunter David Kay is in the Washington area and may not return to Iraq. These officials, speaking to VOA on condition of anonymity, suggest Mr. Kay may soon be leaving his job.