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Tuesday, 20 August, 2002, 09:01 GMT 10:01 UK
US knew of bioterror tests in Iraq
Poison gas test conducted on a dog in a video thought to have been filmed by al-Qaeda
News of Ansar's tests follow fresh revelations about al-Qaeda
A radical Islamic group has been testing biological weapons at a small facility in northern Iraq, the US Government says - but American plans for covert action against the facility have been shelved.

US officials have confirmed media reports that Ansar al-Islam - a group allegedly linked to Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda organisation - had been conducting the experiments over the last couple of months.

"Information indicated they might be experimenting with [the toxin] ricin, including experiments with barnyard animals and reports of experimenting on at least one human," an official said quoted by news agencies.

George W Bush
Bush may face awkward questions
BBC correspondent Steve Kingstone says the Pentagon considered some form of military action to destroy the facility earlier this year, although officials have refused to elaborate.

Bush administration officials apparently concluded the testing facility was too small and crude to be worth risking American lives over and it was not worth the outcry that might follow a US military operation,

On Monday the White House said it would study a collection of videotapes obtained by a US television network apparently showing chemical weapons' experiments conducted by al-Qaeda.

Deadly poison

Ricin is a biological toxin derived from the coat of the castor bean, which can kill by inhibiting the body's ability to synthesise protein.

Experts say there is no treatment or vaccine against exposure to the toxin, which is several times more deadly than the chemical agents used in World War I.

Map
US media reports said the Ansar tests included exposing a man to the toxin in a market place and then following him home, where he later died.

US officials say there is no evidence the Iraqi Government was linked to the tests, which took place in a region beyond Baghdad's control.

Neither the Pentagon nor President Bush's National Security Council have commented on reports that military action was shelved.

But our correspondent says Mr Bush could face awkward questions as to why bioweapons' testing was allowed to continue given his repeated promises to hunt down al-Qaeda members and to protect the world from the threat of chemical weapons.

Islamist pocket

The area controlled by Ansar al-Islam between the town of Halabja and the Iranian border is known as Iraq's Tora Bora, after al-Qaeda's former mountain stronghold in Afghanistan.

Ansar leader Mullah Krekar
Ansar leader Mullah Krekar
The group is largely made up of Iraqi Kurds from several radical Islamic groups which merged late last year.

Many of members are veterans from the Afghanistan's long civil war, and they are believed to include at least 20 or 30 "Arab Afghans" from Iraq and other Arab countries.

The group has repeatedly clashed with forces of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which controls the eastern part of northern Iraq, and has wrought havoc in neighbouring villages with its raids.

As well as possible links with al-Qaeda, analysts believe Ansar al-Islam may be under the influence of both Iraqi intelligence and Iran, which has reportedly allowed members to be treated in hospitals over the border.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Richard Forrest
"An opposition to any attack on Iraq is growing"

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See also:

24 Jul 02 | Middle East
24 Jul 02 | Middle East
19 Aug 02 | South Asia
14 Jan 02 | South Asia
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