Report suggests Iraqi nuclear plot

WASHINGTON _ U.S. officials and Iraqi defectors say that Iraq has stepped up work on a nuclear weapons program that was just months away from perfecting a bomb before the 1990-1991 Gulf War.No one is yet suggesting publicly that Iraq has an atomic bomb. The scientists that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein calls his “nuclear mujahedeen,” or holy warriors, are believed to lack the means for now to manufacture highly enriched uranium.But reports over the last year describe renewed Iraqi efforts to acquire weapons-usable uranium and enrichment materials from the former Soviet bloc.”I don’t think he has it right now,” said Robert Gallucci, a former special U.S. ambassador on nonproliferation and a weapons inspector in Iraq. “But do I want to bet New York City on that? No.” Iraq’s pursuit of nuclear weapons has become a key argument offered by the Bush administration for a pre-emptive war against Iraq – sooner rather than later.President Bush told the United Nations on Thursday that “action will be unavoidable” against Iraq if Saddam Hussein does not immediately abandon his chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs. But Bush gave the U.N. one more chance to confront the Iraqi leader before unleashing U.S. force.Bush laid out five demands Hussein must meet immediately, from destroying all weapons of mass destruction to accounting for 600 soldiers still missing from the Persian Gulf War, even though Bush’s aides said the president does not believe Hussein will meet the demands.The White House had been laying a foundation for Bush’s demands for some time.”Many of us are convinced that Saddam will acquire such weapons fairly soon,” Vice President Dick Cheney said last week in San Antonio.”Armed with an arsenal of these weapons of terror, and sitting atop 10 percent of the world’s oil reserves, Saddam Hussein could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East, to take control of a great portion of the world’s energy supplies, and to directly threaten America’s friends throughout the region, and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail.”Iraq’s ambassador to the United Nations said in early September that Iraq no longer has weapons of mass destruction programs.”We have no nuclear bomb. We have no weapons of mass destruction,” Ambassador Mohammed Aldouri said on NBC’s “Today” show.Secretary of State Colin Powell over the weekend will be negotiating the contents of the next _ and possibly final _ U.N. resolution on Iraq with other members of the Security Council. Of the so-called Permanent Five _ Russia, China, France, Great Britain and the U.S. _ only British Prime Minister Tony Blair has backed Bush’s call for Hussein’s overthrow.Reports from defectors, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and nonproliferation specialists point to new efforts by Iraq to cross the nuclear weapons threshold.IAEA scientists said Sept. 5 that satellite photos show new buildings at sites where weapons inspectors found nuclear weapons programs between 1991 and 1998.The IAEA’s weapons inspectors left Iraq along with other U.N. arms inspectors in December 1998 after Iraq refused access to presidential palaces and said the U.N. program was compromised by U.S. spies.U.S. and British warplanes then bombed 101 suspected weapons targets across Iraq. The arms inspectors have not returned since then.An IAEA team visits an Iraqi nuclear research lab every year to check on the status of 1.3 tons of slightly enriched uranium, but the agency has not been allowed to look elsewhere.Hussein’s agents are apparently hunting for a nuclear core in the former Soviet Union. Two reports of Iraqi nuclear smuggling surfaced this summer.Khidir Hamza, the former head of Iraq’s nuclear weapons program, who defected in 1995, says an Iraqi intelligence team took delivery in Africa recently of what were apparently spent fuel rods from a Russian nuclear reactor. The rods contained radioactive material that would be difficult though not impossible to convert into weapons-grade uranium, Hamza said, and they could be readily used for a so-called dirty bomb of radioactive materials scattered by conventional explosives. Hamza said the report came from an Iraqi intelligence officer who was part of the team and later defected to the West. The exchange took place in Africa because the Iraqis feared getting caught in a sting operation in Europe mounted by Russian or U.S. agents, he said.The second smuggling attempt, first reported in The Washington Times, involved Iraqi attempts inside the former Soviet bloc to purchase high-quality steel tubing used in uranium enrichment to prevent corrosion by uranium hexafluoride gas.Hamza said the report suggests Iraq is trying to manufacture its own weapons-grade uranium through a process known as gaseous diffusion that could deliver enough material for three bombs by 2005. He said the enrichment efforts could be scattered at scores of sites across the country to prevent detection.”This is more dangerous than getting enough fissile material for a bomb from outside,” he said in an interview. “You can purchase, at best, a kilogram here or there, at best enough for one or two bombs. When you have a production facility, you have weapons on an Indian or Pakistani scale. They could have a large-scale nuclear arsenal in a decade.”A CIA spokesman had no comment on the defector reports. The IAEA reported to the United Nations in 1999 that it had “fully and effectively” dismantled Iraq’s nuclear weapons program. Former arms inspector Scott Ritter, who years ago discovered four nuclear bomb packages in Iraq that lacked only a nuclear core, has argued that the program was demolished and that the Bush administration’s warnings are only a pretext for war. Kelly Motz, editor of Iraq Watch, an Internet publication focusing on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, said nuclear weapons are “the threat you need if you want to justify going in and taking Saddam’s regime out.””It’s pretty clear he already has biological and chemical weapons,” she said. “So far, that hasn’t been enough to enable or encourage us to act. But if you could prove he was close to or on the edge of nuclear weapons, which are such a quantifiably greater threat, it would make your case clearer and could be the impetus to act.” Former weapons inspectors who tried to demolish Iraq’s weapons programs after the Gulf War say Iraq had at least two workable designs for nuclear weapons, and had mastered a detonation system that would trigger a nuclear explosion.After the August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Iraqi scientists tried to fabricate a nuclear core from reactor fuel rods that were under IAEA supervision. They built a weapon weighing more than a ton, then shifted efforts to assembling a smaller, lighter weapon that could be fitted into a missile warhead.Hamza said the goal was to conduct a test of the missile and nuclear weapon before the U.S. attacked to drive Iraq from Kuwait.The weapons site was destroyed by U.S. warplanes, and the IAEA removed the nuclear material after the war.Hamza said Iraq could build a bomb in a matter of months if it obtains weapons-grade uranium.Other scientists agreed with his assessment.”The effective organizations there in 1990 are, apart from a couple of people, still there today,” said former arms inspector Tim McCarthy. “One can imagine all sorts of technical approaches to building a weapon, but none of that is possible without the people.”Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also pointed to Hussein’s nuclear science cadres.”To the extent that they have kept their nuclear scientists together and working on these efforts, one has to assume that they have not been playing tiddlywinks, that they have been focusing on nuclear weapons,” he said this week.In January, a CIA report to Congress expressed concern about Iraqi efforts to acquire radioactive materials suitable for a weapon, but the report was fairly low-key in its overall assessment.”We believe that Iraq has probably continued at least low-level theoretical R&D associated with its nuclear program,” the report said.Agency officials would not comment about the CIA’s current assessment.__