KUWAIT — The Bush administration has deployed mobile labs and new specialized teams of intelligence officials and disarmament experts to Kuwait to help the military search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as soon as war begins, according to senior administration officials.
Defense officials are also reaching out to former international weapons inspectors, as part of an ambitious top-secret effort to rapidly find, secure and ultimately destroy the caches of chemical, biological and other unconventional weapons the administration asserts President Saddam Hussein is hiding.
In recent interviews, officials described the plans as one of the most delicate and crucial missions of the war against Iraq. Never before, they said, had the United States proposed to disarm a nation of unconventional weapons by force.
The Pentagon has deployed several new tactical units called mobile exploitation teams with state-of-the-art equipment and novel tactics to locate and survey at least 130 and as many as 1,400 possible weapons sites.
In addition, officials said the military was planning to find and interview hundreds of Iraqi scientists who worked on germ, chemical or nuclear-related projects, and to seek their cooperation in disarming Iraq of the weapons that the United Nations required Saddam to destroy after the Persian Gulf war in 1991.
The administration has assigned top priority to the hunt for weapons of mass destruction, officials said. After months of relatively fruitless international inspections, the discovery of such arms, officials said, would vindicate the administration's decision to go to war to disarm Iraq. Conversely, failure to find them would leave the administration vulnerable to charges that it had started a war needlessly.
Administration officials are determined to find illegal weapons before Saddam can send them out of the country and perhaps sell them to other rogue nations or terrorist groups.
The American plans to eliminate illegal Iraqi arms were drawn up independently of United Nations weapons inspections and reflect the Bush administration's belief that those inspections would never succeed in disarming Iraq in the face of Saddam's resistance. The inspectors withdrew from Iraq today after Secretary General Kofi Annan ordered their evacuation.
Maj. Gen. James A. Marks, a senior Army intelligence officer in the Iraq operation who helped draft overall plans for the hunt for unconventional weapons, said the mission was challenging because Saddam has had more than a decade to find ways of hiding them.
"He's the master of where's the pea," Marks said.
Senior national security aides approved the concept of the mission at a White House meeting almost two months ago and put the Pentagon in charge of it. Two mobile labs that can analyze chemical and biological samples in less than 24 hours with 90 percent confidence were recently sent to Kuwait.
The Defense Department has assembled teams of highly trained disarmament and technical experts from several different Pentagon offices — organized in the mobile exploitation teams — who will accompany troops with a special mandate to hunt for unconventional weapons.
On the teams are small units of intelligence analysts and technical and security experts, whose goal is to locate sites, take samples and interview Iraqi scientists who have had central roles in Iraq's weapons programs.
In the last two weeks, the Pentagon has made contact with several former international inspectors who worked for the now-extinct United Nations Special Commission, or Unscom, which conducted inspections in Iraq from 1991 through December 1998. Administration officials are asking them to join the specialized Pentagon teams and help the military spot hidden storage and production sites, collect documents about the programs and identify and interview crucial Iraqi scientists as well as military and security officials who might know where such weapons have been made or may be stored.