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ARKIB : 09/01/2004

US weapons search team withdrawn from Iraq

WASHINGTON Jan 8 - A 400-strong US military team that has been searching for illicit weapons in Iraq have been withdrawn after finding nothing of substance, although a separate group looking for weapons of mass destruction still remains in the country, The New York Times reported Thursday.

``They picked up everything that was worth picking up,'' one US official told the daily, referring to the Joint Captured Materiel Exploitation Group, made up of technical experts headed by an unidentified Australian brigadier.

The team's task included searching weapons depots and other sites for missile launchers that might have been used with illicit weapons, another also unidentified Defence Department official was quoted as saying.

The withdrawal of the 400-member military team was seen by some military officials as a sign that the US government may no longer expect to uncover chemical or biological weapons in Iraq, the daily said.

A separate military team tasked with disposing of chemical or biological weapons in Iraq remains part of the 1,400-member Iraq Survey Group that has been searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq since Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was overthrown, a member of the survey group said.

However he told the paper that the group in question, known as Task Force D/E, for disablement and elimination, was ``still waiting for something to dispose of.''

In October, an interim report by Iraq Survey Group leader David Kay said his search had yielded no weapons of mass destruction, which President George W. Bush had cited as justification for war against Iraq.

Kay, however, said documents found in Iraq indicated that Saddam intended to develop illicit weapons and may have retained the capacity to do so. Kay has yet to announce when he will turn in his final report on the matter.

The Washington Post on Wednesday said interviews with Iraqi scientists and investigators indicate that Saddam's regime concealed arms research that never went beyond the planning stage, although it engaged in ``abundant deception'' about its ambitions.

``The broad picture emerging from the investigation to date,'' said the Post, ``suggests that, whatever its desire, Iraq did not posess the wherewithal to build a forbidden armory on anything like the scale it had before the 1991 Persian Gulf War.''

Despite mounting evidence that Iraq lacked weapons of mass destruction, the US government insists the search for banned weapons in Iraq is not over and points to thousands of seized documents that it says may yet lead to a hidden jackpot.

MEANWHILE, an influential Washington think tank said Thursday that President George W. Bush's administration ``systematically'' misrepresented and exaggerated the threats presented by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

The critical report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said the United States also misrepresented the findings of UN weapons inspectors in a bid to justify its case for war against Iraq.

``Administration officials systematically misrepresented the threat from Iraq's WMD and ballistic missile programmes,'' the report said.

Officials had also misrepresented UN ``inspectors findings in ways that turned threats from minor to dire,'' it said.

The 100-page report took six months to compile and examined claims made by the White House in the run up to the March 20 invasion that ousted former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

It also said there was ``no solid evidence'' to back administration claims of a close relationship between Saddam and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.

In launching the war, Bush had said Saddam's former government had presented a direct threat to the United States and the world.

The United States has failed to uncover any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons since the war. Hundreds of experts are still scouring Iraq in the hunt. - AFP

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