NEAR NAJAF, Iraq (AFP) - A facility near Baghdad that a US officer had claimed might finally be "smoking gun" evidence of Iraqi chemical weapons production turned out to contain pesticide, not sarin gas as originally thought.
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A military intelligence officer for the US 101st Airborne Division's aviation brigade, Captain Adam Mastrianni, told AFP that comprehensive tests Monday determined the presence of the pesticide compounds.
Initial tests had reportedly detected traces of sarin -- a powerful toxin that quickly affects the nervous system -- after US soldiers guarding the facility near Hindiyah, 100 kilometres (60 miles) south of Baghdad, became ill.
Mastrianni said: "They thought it was a nerve agent. That's what it tested. But it is pesticide."
He said a "theatre-level chemical testing team" made up of biologists and chemists had disproved the preliminary field tests results and established that pesticide was in fact the substance involved.
Mastrianni added that the dozen sick soldiers, who had become nauseated, dizzy and developed skin blotches, had all recovered.
The belated correction was an embarrassment for the US forces in the region, who had been quick to say that they thought they had finally found the proof they have been actively looking for, that Iraq (news - web sites) was hiding weapons of mass destruction.
A spokesman for the US army's 3rd Infantry Division, Major Ross Coffman, had told journalists at Baghdad's airport that the site "could be a smoking gun".
"We are talking about finding a site of possible weapons of mass destruction," he had added.
But in Qatar, where the US Central Command (CentCom) is directing the US-led invasion of Iraq, officials had been much more cautious.
"We don't have any extraordinary finds at this point while we're still looking," CentCom spokesman US Brigadier General Vincent Brooks told a news briefing.
He expressed confidence that the US forces would eventually find the proof they were looking for.
Troops, he said, would be increasingly investigating suspected sites, both ones that have been identified beforehand, and others "that can be done on an ad hoc basis where we find some piece of information we didn't previously have -- and frankly we expect there will be a lot of that."
In a further sign that US commanders are unconcerned about an Iraqi nuclear, biological or chemical attack, they ordered forces near Baghdad on Monday to shed their protective gear.
"It's great to have them off," Lieutenant Colonel Fred Padilla, commander of the 1st Marines Battalion, said after his troops stripped down to lighter camouflage garb.
Padilla said an order to take off the cumbersome and hot protection suits had come down from his superiors.
"They made an assessment and they determined there was not a serious threat right now," he said.