U.S. Special Forces troops went on the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in northeastern Iraq Saturday but came up empty-handed.
The site they hit was identified by Secretary of State Colin Powell in his argument for war before the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 5 as a base for the radical group Ansar al-Islam. Powell said the group linked Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network to Saddam Hussein, and had plotted chemical attacks across Europe.
Powell showed a satellite photograph of what he said was a chemical weapons training center in northern Iraq used by al Qaeda and protected by Ansar al-Islam, calling it evidence of a "sinister nexus between Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist network."
Intelligence officials were convinced they would find the toxin known as ricin, which is deadlier than cyanide, or the apparatus to make chemicals at the facility. They were so concerned about the facility that plans were drawn up to attack it long before the war, although they were not carried out.
Scouring the Rubble for Samples
Special Forces teams, many of whom had trained for months for the Ansar raid, left base early in the morning for the camp. ABCNEWS was the only news organization allowed to join them.
The base had been secured just hours earlier, after fierce combat against Ansar al-Islam fighters. "We weren't able to take any POWs because once we got close, they would detonate explosives on their bodies or kill themselves with a grenade," one of the American troops said.
The teams came to the camp expecting to find hard evidence Ansar al-Islam has biological and chemical weapons.
What they found was a camp devastated by cruise missile strikes from the first days of the war. A specialized biochemical team scoured the rubble for samples. They wore protective masks as they entered a building they suspected was a weapons lab, but found nothing.
In an interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABCNEWS' This Week today, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that there were still numerous places to search in the former Ansar territory, and suggested that the evidence may have been removed from the main compound that forces hit Saturday.
"We saw from the air that there were dozens of trucks that went into that facility after the existence of it became public in the press, and they moved things out," said Rumsfeld. "They dispersed them and took them away. So there may be nothing left. I don't know that. But it's way too soon to know."
He also said there were dozens of facilities spread over a large area, and that it would take time to check them all.
While the weapons could indeed have been moved out, for this unit, such evidence would have been a smoking gun — proof that Ansar has banned weapons. And in the end, it was a disappointing day for these troops on the front line of the hunt for weapons of mass destruction.