The United States has captured one of the directors of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs who had been expelled by Syria.
U.S. officials said coalition forces arrested the head of Iraq's biological weapons program. They identified the scientist as Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, known as Mrs. Anthrax, No. 53 on the U.S. list of 55 most wanted Iraqis.
Ms. Ammash, whose husband, a senior aide to President Saddam Hussein, was captured last week, escaped to Syria in early April, officials said. They said her arrest came after strong U.S. pressure on Damascus to surrender Iraqi WMD scientists.
Other officials said Ms. Ammash was one of several Iraqi WMD scientists urged by Syria to leave the country, Middle East Newsline reported. They said she might have been in contact with United Nations inspectors to arrange for her surrender.
"She was asked to leave by Syria and then the United States was informed of where she could be found," a Western diplomatic source said. "Syria has done this with several other Saddam aides over the last few days."
"I can't say how she was captured," a U.S. official said on Monday. "What I can say is that we believe she was one of hundreds of senior members of the Saddam regime and their families who escaped to Syria last month."
Ms. Ammash, 49, studied microbiology in the United States in the 1980s and rose to become the leading scientist in Iraq's biological weapons program. She was shown on Iraqi state television at a meeting of President Saddam Hussein on the eve of the U.S.-led war on March 20.
The capture of Ms. Ammash came two days after Secretary of State Colin Powell urged Syrian President Bashar Assad to surrender Iraqi WMD scientists. Powell said the United States had relayed information to the Assad regime on the whereabouts of senior members of the Saddam regime who had escaped to Damascus.
"We have made it clear to the Syrians that as we learn of individuals who might be in Syria of this type we would pass that information to them, expect them to be turned over," Powell said in a television interview on Sunday. "And if the Syrians find individuals who might have association with the regime, or might have scientific background which would help us in the search for weapons of mass destruction, we would expect Syria to turn it over as part of the new positive relationship with the United States."
Powell also said he was not sure Syria was harboring weapons of mass destruction. The secretary's assertion contradicted that of a CIA report released in April that Syria has possessed chemical weapons and sought to develop biological weapons.
"I can't say that they are harboring weapons of mass destruction," Powell said. "We have made it clear to them that this would be not in their interest. They say they are not. We will continue to look at our intelligence holdings and any other information that comes into our possession that we think would be useful to resolve this question."
Officials said Syria had pledged before Powell's visit to facilitate the capture of Ms. Ammash. They said the Assad regime denied that the Iraqi WMD scientist was in Syria until U.S. intelligence presented Damascus with precise evidence.
A colleague of Ms. Ammash, Rihab Taha, was also believed to have fled to Syria. Ms. Taha was dubbed Dr. Germ by United Nations weapons inspectors.
Officials said they have received reports that Syria had expelled several Saddam aides over the last 10 days. Among them include the wife of Saddam, Sajidah and Izzet Eddin Ibrahim Al Douri, both of whom were reported to be in the area of the northern city of Mosul.
On Tuesday, the Washington Times quoted U.S. officials as saying that France had helped Saddam aides escape Syria. The newspaper said France supplied passports to senior Iraqi officials to allow them to travel to Europe.