WASHINGTON - At the heart of Operation Iraqi Freedom is the hunt for the chemical and biological weapons that U.S. officials have long said pose Saddam Hussein's greatest threat to America and the world.
While officials said that sites related to these weapons were among the targets pounded by cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs during the past two days, they are silent about specific locations and how many sites were hit.
No chemical or biological weapons caches have been located by U.S. ground troops, said defense officials. And there is no indication that Iraqi forces have tried to use so-called weapons of mass destruction against American or British forces, though that is one of the greatest fears of war planners.
Sketchy intelligence, however, points to chemical artillery shells being shipped to elite Republican Guard units, defense officials said.
"Clearly one of our top priorities, one of our top objectives, is to find and destroy the [weapons of mass destruction]," Victoria Clarke, spokeswoman for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, told reporters yesterday. "There are a number of sites. I won't go into detail which ones they are, where they are. ... I will not give you a ballpark [number]."
Clarke said one reason for the silence is to "manage expectations" about what the U.S.-led coalition can hope to produce as evidence that Hussein has such weapons, which he claims to have destroyed.
"The Iraqi regime was extraordinarily skilled at hiding the stuff, at dispersing the stuff in underground bunkers. ... It could be very difficult to find and exploit this stuff," she said.
Also yesterday, Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the top coalition commander, told reporters in Qatar during his first news briefing of the war that after removing Hussein from power, the top priority is to "identify, isolate and eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction."
"In the days ahead, you will see evidence of the truth of Secretary Rumsfeld's statement yesterday when he said Saddam Hussein was given a choice by the international community to give up his weapons of mass destruction or lose power. He chose unwisely, and now he will lose both," Franks said.
Officials say privately that the only suspected chemical weapons site destroyed was in an area outside Hussein's control - the Kurdish region north of Baghdad.
During the first night of the powerful airstrikes Thursday, about 50 cruise missiles eliminated what officials say was a ricin plant near the village of Khurmal operated by Ansar al-Islam, a guerrilla group with ties to al-Qaida.
Ricin is a highly lethal toxin made from castor beans. The facility was mentioned by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell at the United Nations in February when he laid out the U.S. case against Hussein and his weapons program.
"We've had our eye on that for a long time," said a defense official.
The bulk of the punishing airstrikes launched by the United States have centered on Iraqi air defenses, communications and state security facilities, and leadership targets, such as command posts and residences. Sites associated with chemical and biological weapons, which also include missile launchers and command facilities, account for the fewest of the 1,500 targets of the initial attacks, said a military official.
Army Maj. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, vice director for operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that if U.S. forces find a storage site with weapons of mass destruction, they would select a bomb or missile that would destroy the agent but not release it into the air.
McChrystal said that each suspected chemical or biological weapons-related site "has its own inherent built-in danger," including how the weapons are stored. "I won't identify which we might feel safe to bomb and which we wouldn't," he said.
Still, for all the airstrikes, military planners are relying even more on ground troops to locate and destroy such facilities and related hardware.
Special Operations forces have fanned out from both Jordan and Saudi Arabia in search of Iraqi Scud missiles that officials fear might be launched at Israel with chemical or biological warheads. No Scuds have been found, officials said.
Brig. Gen. Vince Brooks, operations officer with the U.S. Central Command, which is leading the Iraqi war, said that after the first attacks, these commandos also began searching throughout Iraq for chemical and biological stockpiles.
Maj. Gen. John Doesburg, commander of the Soldier Biological and Chemical Defense Command at Aberdeen Proving Ground, told reporters this month that the military has learned a lot since the Persian Gulf war about destroying chemical and biological weapons sites.
During the gulf war, an Iraqi weapons depot at Kamisiya was destroyed and was later found to have contained chemical weapons. After the war, American soldiers claimed illnesses that they linked to the depot's destruction.
"We spent a lot of time studying issues like Kamisiya after the gulf war," Doesburg said.
Doesburg said the preferred method of destruction for biological weapons is extreme heat to kill bacteria and viruses, while chemical weapons shells can be placed into an Explosive Destruction System, a portable cylinder designed to destroy the shells safely.