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Al Qaeda Facility In Iraq Targeted?

The subject of if, and where, biological weapons may be produced and stored in Iraq continues to be a hot issue.

Arab terrorists with al Qaeda ties may have tested biological weapons at a small facility in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, a U.S. official said.

Meanwhile, a top Iraqi official took journalists to a site near Baghdad Tuesday that Iraqis maintain is a food warehouse but U.S. officials suspect may be a biological weapons facility.

American intelligence agencies had reason to suspect that the suspected al Qaeda facility, in a part of northern Iraq not controlled by President Saddam Hussein's government, was a kind of laboratory for chemical and biological weapons activity that included testing on barnyard animals and at least one man, the official said Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

U.S. officials believe the terrorists tested a biological toxin known as ricin, a deadly poison made from the castor bean plant.

The Defense Department has reviewed possibly taking military action against the site in northern Iraq because any time there is intelligence about production of weapons of mass destruction all options are considered, including military, a U.S. counterterror official said in Washington.

The Bush administration considered a covert military operation against the facility, but President Bush did not approve military action, ABC News' "World News Tonight" reported Monday.

Citing unidentified intelligence officials, ABC said that as U.S. surveillance of the weapons facility intensified, Bush administration officials concluded it was too small and crude to be worth risking American lives and the outcry among allies that might follow any U.S. action inside Iraq.

At the White House, a spokesman for Mr. Bush's National Security Council refused comment.

"As a matter of policy, we don't discuss whether something was or was not briefed to the president," spokesman Michael Anton said in Washington. "We don't discuss military targeting — whether something is, was or might be a military target."

The official who privately discussed U.S. knowledge of the facility said it was operated recently by a small number of people connected to terrorists in Ansar al-Islam, an Arab organization with links to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terror network. The official would not say whether the facility was still in operation.

U.S. intelligence agencies have no evidence that Saddam is linked to the operation, the official said.

The tour of the building near Baghdad was the second this month of a suspected weapons site, part of stepped up Iraqi efforts to convince the world it is a victim of false U.S. claims that it is producing weapons of mass destruction.

The visits come amid speculation Washington soon will launch a military campaign against Saddam for harboring weapons banned under Security Council resolutions.

A sign at the entrance to the complex, which Iraqi officials claim was destroyed during the 1991 Gulf War and rebuilt by a French company, reads: "The complex of al-Taji stores, the Trading state Company of Foodstuff."

Inside, piles of 110-pound sacks of sugar and rice and boxes of milk covered the floor. Writing on the sacks indicated they were imported under the oil-for-food program that allows Iraq to sell unlimited quantities of oil provided the proceeds go for food, medicine and other supplies.

Last week, U.S. officials said their intelligence agencies detected signs that Iraq may be moving material or equipment out of a suspected biological weapons facility at al-Taji complex.

Some intelligence analysts believe the movements indicate an effort by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to disperse the items in anticipation of possible American military strikes, the officials added.

Iraq's Trade Minister Mohammed Mehdi Saleh told reporters that the trucks detected by U.S. intelligence were transporting large quantities of foodstuffs from al-Taji to subsidiary warehouses in Iraqi provinces to be distributed to ordinary Iraqis under a new monthly food ration system.

"The number of trucks moved from here since Aug. 4, 2002, and detected by U.S. satellite is 187," said Saleh.

He said that if the Americans enlarged the satellite pictures of the milk boxes, which were not covered during the transfer, they would find "Al-moudhish" inscribed on the golden packs — a brand of Omani-produced milk that Iraq imports.

Last week, Iraqi officials took journalists on a tour of a facility in Baghdad said to be a suspected biological weapons production site. Iraqi officials maintain it is a livestock vaccination laboratory.

Reports last month said that the U.S. administration has prepared a plan to launch military operations against Iraq from Jordan. Jordan, which opposes the use of force against its eastern neighbor, has denied the report.

In an interview with al-Rafidein weekly, Iraq's Foreign Minister Naji Sabri said the United States was trying to "drive a wedge" between Iraq and Jordan in order to hamper efforts aimed at achieving Arab solidarity.

"The United States is trying to ignite disputes and problems among Arab countries ... and our relations with Jordan are deep-rooted and strong," he was quoted as saying.

Under U.N. Security Council resolutions, sanctions imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which led to the Gulf war, cannot be lifted until U.N. inspectors certify Iraq's biological, chemical and nuclear weapons have been destroyed along with the long-range missiles to deliver them. U.N. weapons inspectors left Iraq in 1998 and Baghdad has barred them from returning.

The inspectors' return is a key demand of the council, and especially of the United States, which has accused Iraq of trying to rebuild its weapons programs and of supporting terrorism.

President Bush, who has called for Saddam's ouster, has threatened unspecified consequences if inspectors are not allowed to return.

Iraq told U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan last week that it wants to continue a dialogue with the United Nations on the return of inspectors — but with conditions that Annan already rejected.

Annan and Security Council members insist that Iraq follow a 1999 council resolution requiring inspectors to visit Iraq and then determine within 60 days what arms questions Iraq still must answer.

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