NEAR BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S. biological and chemical weapons experts believe they may have found an Iraqi storage site for chemical weapons, a U.S. officer told Reuters on Monday.
A military source who declined to be identified said there were unconfirmed reports there could be sarin -- a highly lethal nerve agent that causes death by suffocation -- at the site.
Iraq ( news - web sites) is believed to have used sarin against Kurdish Iraqis in the 1980s.
"Our detectors have indicated something," said Major Ross Coffman, a public affairs officer with the U.S. 3rd Infantry.
"We're talking about finding a site of possible WMD storage. This is an initial report, but it could be a smoking gun," he said, adding that the site was south of the central Iraqi town of Hindiyah.
"It is not as if there is a cloud of gas hanging everywhere endangering soldiers lives. We're talking about a facility," Coffman added.
Military sources said experts were looking at three 50-gallon barrels and 11 25-gallon barrels found at the site. As well as sarin, they may also have found phosgene, a choking agent that causes fluid buildup in the lungs, he said.
Brigadier General Vicent Brooks at U.S. Central Command forward headquarters in Qatar said he knew of no discoveries of weapons of mass destruction, but said that didn't mean they weren't waiting to be found.
The U.S. news station National Public Radio, reporting what appeared to be a separate discovery, said U.S. forces found a weapons cache of around 20 medium-range missiles equipped with potent chemical weapons.
NPR said the rockets, BM-21 missiles, were equipped with sarin and mustard gas and were "ready to fire."
It said the cache was discovered by Marines with the 101st Airborne Division, which was following up behind the Army after it seized Baghdad's international airport.
Officers from the 101st Division were unable to confirm the report and U.S. Central Command headquarters in Qatar had no immediate comment.
The United States and Britain launched the war against Iraq to rid the country of weapons of mass destruction Iraqi President Saddam Hussein ( news - web sites ) denies having.
U.N. weapons inspectors returned to Iraq after a four-year absence in November to look for banned chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.
Inspectors had not found any such weapons when their search abruptly ended when U.S.-led troops attacked Iraq on March 20.
On Saturday, a U.S. officer said first tests of a suspicious white powder and liquid found on Friday in thousands of boxes south of Baghdad indicated it was not a chemical weapon.
Over the weekend, U.S. Marines in the central Iraqi town of Aziziyah began digging up a suspected chemical weapons hiding place at a girl's school.
"We have always expected that this regime has chemical weapons and also possesses the will and means to use it," Brooks told a news conference at Central Command.
He said the U.S.-led forces' advance inside the country had removed some of the means and its blizzard of leaflets and messages warning Iraqi commanders not to use weapons of mass destruction had removed much of the will.
There had also been strikes early on in the campaign, he added, against Iraqi missile capabilities -- such as al Samouds -- which could have delivered chemical or even biological weapons into neighboring countries.
"That work continues but there's also still capability," he said. "While it hasn't been found we're reminded that because we haven't found it it's still there. That's the approach we take."