WASHINGTON — U.S. forces in Iraq are checking out sites identified by captured Iraqis as possibly holding biological or chemical weapons, the commander of American ground troops said Friday.
Lt. Gen. David McKiernan and Pentagon officials said they had no confirmed discoveries of chemical or biological weapons to announce. But the general said he was confident weapons of mass destruction eventually would be found.
President Bush said he ordered the U.S.-led war with Iraq to eliminate stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons that he said deposed President Saddam Hussein's government had collected. No such weapons have been found.
Information on chemical and biological weapons is rare because so few Iraqis were involved in those programs, McKiernan told Pentagon reporters over a video link from Iraq's capital, Baghdad. He said, however, that questioning of some Iraqi officials has been fruitful.
"From some interrogations, we get information that leads us to another source, that we have to go locate certain facilities and go in there and check those out," McKiernan said. "I'm not going to go into the details, but there is discussion from both the chemical and the biological side that leads us to intelligence that we have to go confirm or deny."
The failure to find any banned weapons in Iraq has prompted critics in the United States and abroad to question whether Bush overstated the evidence that Saddam's government had them. McKiernan said he had no such doubts.
"Even if there were no interrogations, I would tell you personally, I think there's a lot still hidden that it will take time for us to uncover," McKiernan said.
The general said the attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq do not appear to be coordinated by any central authority. A prominent former Iraqi exile, Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress, said this week that Saddam was still alive and offering bounties for the killing of American troops.
McKiernan said the attacks were "only coordinated locally, not nationally."
Still, "there is the probability that there are financial trails that lead to other parts of Iraq, and there might be communications that go to other parts," McKiernan said. He didn't elaborate.
McKiernan said many of the attacks were from former members of Saddam's Baath Party, his intelligence services or the former president's Special Republican Guard. Those are former combatants who "know they have zero future in the next Iraq and will do everything they can to attack coalition efforts in this country."
American troops will begin to leave Iraq "when the time is right," McKiernan said, but he refused to predict when that might be. Some units, such as the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, have been in Iraq for almost three months after spending nearly a year in Kuwait preparing for the invasion.
"I'm not worried about our units and our soldiers losing their combat edge," McKiernan said, although he said some equipment had to be repaired or replaced.