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Discovery of Chemical Suits Reinforces Concerns

A U.S. general said Wednesday the discovery of 3,000 chemical suits in a central Iraqi hospital that had been used as an Iraqi base raised concern that Saddam Hussein's regime was prepared to use chemical weapons.

"What we found at the hospital reinforces our concern," said Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks. "We are well-prepared to deal with the potential use of chemical weapons."

In addition to the chemical suits, the Central Command reported earlier that Marines found and confiscated gas masks and nerve gas antidote injectors in the hospital near An Nasiriyah.

Asked about 14 civilians killed in Baghdad in what Iraq said was a U.S. bombing, Brooks said that he had no information on the incident.

"We don't have a report that corroborates that, so I can't confirm it," he said. "We do everything physically and scientifically possible to be precise in our targeting."

Asked about reports that a large contingent of Iraq's elite Republican Guard were headed south toward U.S. Marines in central Iraq, Brooks said, "We've not seen any significant movements of the type of force you've described.

"There have been local positionings and survival positionings, but not serious attacks and we certainly remain, we believe, well in control of the situation at hand," he said.

A Central Command spokesman later said there were military reports of "significant numbers" of troops moving south.

Brooks said two Baath Party headquarters had been destroyed by coalition forces overnight: one in Basra was demolished in a raid and close air support strikes hit another in Al Samawah.

Brooks confirmed a series of firefights overnight in An Najaf. V Corps sustained "a few damaged vehicles" but inflicted "significant damage" on Iraqi forces, he said.

He said to date Iraq had fired 10 missiles that were either downed by Patriot missiles or allowed to fall harmlessly. Several had flown well beyond the 93-mile limit imposed by U.N. sanctions, including one that flew about 120 miles and landed in the Persian Gulf.

Brooks showed images of an Iraqi military vehicle hidden under a bridge and a military base near a mosque and school. Also shown was communications equipment positioned in ancient ruins marked with the international symbol denoting it was a historical site.

Intelligence officers with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force said the Republican Guard units were headed with a 1,000-vehicle convoy from Baghdad on a route that avoids advancing U.S. Army forces but leads directly to the Marines who have been fighting in recent days around the city of An Nasiriyah.

Brooks said that there had been fighting between different groups of Iraqis in the contested southern city of Basra, where British reports suggested there may have been an uprising against Saddam Hussein's regime.

"We saw fighting in the city between Iraqis -- some of them in uniform, some not," he said.

He said Iraqi paramilitary forces were "shooting into the town of Basra" and compared their behavior to "global terrorists."

"It was a very confusing situation, to say the least," Brooks added.

He said that U.S.-led forces hold more than 4,000 prisoners of war and that the coalition had contacted the International Committee of the Red Cross to arrange a visit.