By Timmermann, Kenneth R.
Insight on the News , Vol. 18, No. 38
Recent intelligence information revealing dramatic progress in Iraq's nuclear-weapons program has given a new urgency to U.S. and British efforts to build international support for war with Iraq, according to Iraqi opposition leaders interviewed by INSIGHT in London.
The information, from recent defectors and other sources working with the broad-based Iraqi National Congress (INC), indicates that Baghdad has made "a recent breakthrough" in production of the fissile material needed to produce the bomb. It was buttressed on Sept. 24 when the British government released an "unprecedented" white paper based in part on classified intelligence information on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs. As U.N. inspectors ultimately discovered after several years of investigations in Iraq, the lack of nuclear-weapons materials was the only obstacle that blocked Iraq from joining the nuclear club before the Persian Gulf War in 1991. It remains so today.
The warnings from the opposition INC coincide with new assessments of Iraqi weapons programs from independent think tanks. "If Iraq were to acquire material from another country, it is possible that it could assemble a nuclear weapon in months," the Carnegie Endowment in Washington concluded in a recent report.
Former Clinton national-security official Gary Samore is more circumspect in a just completed "net assessment" of Iraq's weapons programs for the International Institute for Strategic Affairs in London. While he agrees that Iraq rapidly could assemble a weapon with fissile material from abroad, he doubts Iraq can produce special nuclear material on its own. "That will take much longer, with a relatively higher risk of detection than for chemical- or biological-weapons production," he tells INSIGHT.
But the think tanks also admit that they are just guessing. For the last four years there have been no international weapons inspectors in Baghdad. The only hard information on Iraqi weapons programs has come from Iraqi defectors and from U.S. national-technical means, including spy satellites and overflights of Iraq by combat air patrols. The U.S. intelligence community has all but admitted publicly that it has no human sources in Iraq.
"We know that Saddam Hussein pursued weapons of mass murder even when inspectors were in the country," President George W. Bush reminded the United Nations on Sept. 12. "Are we to assume that he stopped when they left?" To credit this regime's good faith is "to bet the lives of millions and the peace of the world in a reckless gamble."
A former senior Iraqi intelligence officer tells INSIGHT that information obtained by the INC during the last few months indicates "Iraq has made significant progress recently in uranium enrichment." That conclusion is based on Iraqi purchases of specialized magnets from Germany and aluminum tubes for enrichment centrifuges from South Africa, as well as firsthand reports from defectors and sources in place who have visited new clandestine nuclear- and biological-weapons production sites during the last 18 months.
Among those clandestine sites are several new uranium-enrichment plants, INC says. "Iraq is no longer using large, easy-to-spot facilities, but small-scale production plants that fit in small areas," a senior INC official says. According to INSIGHT sources, Iraqi engineers are miniaturizing the bomb design to make it fit onto a missile, using modeling software and fast new computers recently imported through Dubai, and actively enriching uranium using centrifuges and gaseous-diffusion membranes.
"Yes, there is a new urgency," says Ahmed Chalabi, a member of the six-man INC leadership committee in London. "We see an acceleration of these programs that shows Saddam is hell-bent on acquiring fissile material not just to build one bomb, but to have a stockpile of weapons," he tells INSIGHT. …