U.S. weapons experts in Iraq have discovered ingredients and equipment that can be used to make a chemical weapon, U.S. military officials confirmed Monday.
The discovery south of Baghdad was made several days ago with the help of an Iraqi scientist who claimed to have worked in Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons program.
The military officials, involved in the weapons hunt and based at Camp Doha in Kuwait, refused to name the scientist or identify the material that had been buried in the ground. Many chemical weapons ingredients have nonmilitary purposes and officials cautioned that the findings, which are being analyzed, do not confirm the presence of chemical weapons at that site.
Officials also raised suspicions about some of the scientist's claims that couldn't be immediately verified.
According to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the scientist said Iraq destroyed and buried chemical weapons and biological warfare equipment days before the war began March 20.
A senior defense official in Washington said the Pentagon was "highly skeptical" of information the scientist provided alleging that Iraq recently began cooperating with Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terror network.
The Bush administration has claimed that Saddam's regime had ties with Al Qaeda but they've provided little conclusive evidence.
So far, no new discoveries have been made in Iraq that link Saddam to Al Qaeda, the defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In Washington, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declined to confirm the discovery, which was first reported in Monday's edition of The New York Times.
He said inspections were continuing in a search for evidence of weapons of mass destruction and that the government would "obviously look with favor on" Iraqis who provide information on hidden materials.
Rumsfeld said last week that U.S. troops would need to rely on the help of Iraqis to find the weaponry. The Pentagon is offering rewards of up to $200,000 for information on the whereabouts of Iraqi leaders and any hidden weapons.
Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix cautioned the Americans to treat information with skepticism, noting that some Iraqis may be motivated to claim more than they know.
"They have to examine everything critically," Blix told The Associated Press on Monday.
Blix's inspectors, working in Iraq between November until mid-March, didn't find any evidence that Iraq had weapons it claimed to have destroyed years ago.
But the Bush administration was unconvinced and has said one of the main reasons for the war was to disarm the country of the chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs it believes Saddam was concealing.
So far, U.S. teams haven't found any conclusive evidence of the kind of weapons Iraq was banned from having after the 1991 Gulf War. Tests are still being conducted, however, and officials have said it was possible the Iraqis may have moved materials out of the country before the war.
The scientist told military officials that several months before the war, he watched as Iraqi officials buried chemical precursors for weapons and other sensitive material to conceal and protect them for future use. He said stockpiles of deadly agents and weapons technology had been transferred to Syria in the mid-1990s.
Four days before President Bush gave Saddam an ultimatum in March, Iraqi officials set fire to a warehouse where biological weapons research was conducted, the scientist said.
The scientist reportedly gave a note to the Army's 101st Airborne Division. The note was then passed to the inspection team, which found the scientist at his home.
A handful of U.S. search teams are in Iraq now, each with about a dozen members from various government agencies including the CIA, Pentagon, FBI and the Defense Intelligence Agency.
The teams have visited some 50 sites, including those selected before the war and some discovered as Army and Marine units pushed through the country during fighting, officials said.