Wall Street Journal OpEd: Saddam May Soon Have the Bomb
By Kenneth R. Timmerman
(The Wall Streeet Journal 18 March, 1999)


     (Editor's Note: This is an opinion piece from Thursday's Wall Street
Journal. Mr. Timmerman is a contributing editor of Reader's Digest. A
longer version of this article, with other supporting documents, appears
at www.readersdigest.com).

     NEW YORK (Dow Jones)--Just west of Baghdad sits al-Ubur, a complex of
buildings surrounded by barbed wire and antiaircraft guns. The Iraqi
government says it's a tractor factory. The facility, which opened to
official fanfare in July 1994, was likely designed to build key elements
of Iraq's secret nuclear program: huge particle accelerators known as
calutrons, which Iraq used before the Gulf War to enrich uranium for
bombs.

     With the end of United Nations inspections in December, the skeleton
1,500-man work force - mostly drawn from Iraq's earlier uranium
enrichment program - could already have begun building new enrichment
systems. And there is mounting evidence that Iraq may be assembling a
secret nuclear reactor to generate plutonium, an alternate nuclear
weapons material.

     Information about both programs was delivered to U.S. government
officials more than four years ago, but was never passed on to the U.N.
Special Commission for the Disarmament of Iraq (known as Unscom) or to
U.S. decision makers. It is revealed publicly for the first time here.
Both the calutron-enrichment system and the reactor are of great concern
because each could provide Saddam Hussein with the fissile material--
weapons-grade uranium and plutonium--he needs to build a nuclear weapon.
'If Iraq had access to nuclear material, [it] could produce a workable
nuclear weapon within one year,' a top official at the International
Atomic Energy Agency told me recently in Vienna.  Western governments
have known for years that Saddam has pursued  weapons of mass
destruction, including a nuclear bomb. In fact, after
the Gulf War, U.N. arms inspectors uncovered thousands of documents
revealing a vast nuclear-weapons program. But although U.N. inspectors
found clear signs of chemical and biological weapons, they were not able
to uncover conclusive evidence that Iraq was on the verge of joining the
nuclear club. This fed Western complacency, or at least a feeling that
the West had breathing space. The Clinton administration insisted that
Iraq's nuclear research was essentially capped, because U.N. weapons
inspectors were on the ground, preventing Iraq from restarting weapons
programs that were destroyed or damaged during the war.
But during an investigation for Reader's Digest, I discovered evidence
indicating that Saddam's nuclear research-and-development program is
probably much further along than the administration believes. Al-Ubur is
one example. U.N. weapons inspectors who visited al-Ubur as recently as
last year noted the factory was equipped with a high-voltage power
source and its own water-purification plant--two telltale signs of
calutrons. This technology, while obsolete in the West, is nevertheless
a functional and proven uranium-enrichment system. 'We are worried what
the Iraqis can do in this facility in the future,' one U.N. weapons
inspector says.

     Another disturbing piece of evidence about Saddam's nuclear program
was provided to me by officials of the Iraqi National Congress, an
opposition group. In early 1994 an Iraqi nuclear technician who had
worked on uranium-enrichment programs defected to the congress in
northern Iraq, carrying an extensive collection of documents, including
rough, hand-drawn diagrams for a nuclear reactor Iraq planned to build
with components probably purchased from China. He also provided detailed
reports on ostensibly civilian manufacturing facilities where he worked
on secret nuclear-weapons projects for more than a decade.
This man, whose identity cannot be revealed because of family in Iraq,
was debriefed by analysts from the CIA's Middle East Operations
Directorate for two months at a U.S. embassy. Inexplicably, details from
the debriefing were never passed on to such presumably interested
parties as the International Atomic Energy Agency or Unscom. Even the
head of the CIA's nonproliferation center, Gordon Oehler, doesn't recall
receiving detailed reports on the defector's information. When asked to
comment for this story, the CIA declined.

     Of course, defectors are not always reliable. I showed the defector's
information to nuclear experts at the IAEA in Vienna and to U.N. weapons
inspectors in New York. They expressed surprise that so much of the
information was new to them. But items they were familiar with, such as
details of Iraq's little-known laser uranium-enrichment program, and the
names of scientists working at various nuclear establishments, added to
the credibility of the defector's information.

     The IAEA had long monitored Iraq for evidence of a nuclear reactor,
using sophisticated environmental sampling gear that could pick up heat
signatures and other telltale signs from an operating nuclear plant.
They never detected such activity. The defector's report gave a coherent
explanation why: Iraqi technicians stripped it down, hiding the various
components at sites throughout the country.

     IAEA officials told me that while they never uncovered evidence of the
nuclear reactor's existence, Iraqi officials at one time admitted to
building experimental reactor fuel assemblies prior to the Gulf War, but
claimed they were destroyed. The defector's report said the Iraqis had
manufactured 200 uranium fuel bundles (almost enough for an entire
reactor core) before the war and hidden them from U.N. inspectors. The
core fuels the nuclear reaction and generates plutonium as a byproduct.
While the IAEA has never found a full core load, drawings provided by
the Iraqis to the IAEA of their planned core design matched the
defector's reactor sketch. The defector's documents included data about
the reactor's uranium fuel rods and a fuel fabrication facility that
tracked with information the IAEA had previously uncovered.
While this type of reactor is not the ideal way to obtain
weapons-grade fuel, it does produce plutonium, says former IAEA
inspector David Kay. 'Are there advantages to plutonium over enriched
uranium as a weapons material? Yes. it's a lot easier to make smaller
warheads you can put on missiles.' 

     And now Iraq is free to pursue its nuclear ambitions without
restraint. It has blocked Unscom and IAEA investigators from carrying
out their work since last August. Those inspectors left Iraq altogether
on Dec. 16, just hours before the Desert Fox bombing campaign.
IAEA officials confirm that Iraq maintains a vast nuclear production
capability, only small portions of which were subject to U.N.
monitoring. With the end of the U.N. inspections, they say, Saddam is
free to bring his nuclear gear out of hiding and resume a crash program
to build the bomb. 'The threat is in the present and the future,' a top
IAEA official said. Despite American knowledge of these Iraqi
capabilities - and the almost daily bombing runs by U.S. and British
pilots - most of the facilities where Iraq is storing or operating this
equipment are still standing. In fact, a U.S. intelligence source said
that several key weapons facilities were removed from the target list
for the Desert Fox bombing campaign last December, due to
'environmental' concerns. 'The fear was that nuclear or biological
material could leak into the atmosphere and cause a widespread
disaster,' the source said.

     Such considerations may have shaped U.S. bombing policies, but those
who have worked with Saddam on his weapons projects say that fear of a
disaster does not register with him. In the end, says Khidhir Hamza,
former head of Iraq's nuclear weapons program, Saddam's logic is
frightening and simple: 'He is hated by his neighbors, and has become an
international pariah. Saddam without the bomb is dead.'
(END) DOW JONES NEWS 03-18-99 02:50 AM

 

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