What We Face: The Bottom Line: Saddam Is Years from Getting an A-Bomb, but May Have an Arsenal of Chemical and Biological Weapons. and He's Already Proved That He's Willing to Use Them

By Barry, John | Newsweek, September 16, 2002 | Go to article overview

What We Face: The Bottom Line: Saddam Is Years from Getting an A-Bomb, but May Have an Arsenal of Chemical and Biological Weapons. and He's Already Proved That He's Willing to Use Them


Barry, John, Newsweek


Byline: John Barry

It is the question of the moment: should the United States invade Iraq and oust Saddam Hussein? President George W. Bush urgently argues Saddam is a madman in possession of a massive stockpile of chemical and biological weapons--an arsenal he could turn loose on us or our allies, or use to arm our enemies. Vice President Dick Cheney claims the Iraqi dictator will have a nuclear bomb "very soon." Others--including a growing chorus of Republicans--urge caution, warning a hasty strike will distract U.S. forces from the still-unfinished war on terrorism and shatter our fragile coalition with Arab allies. Just how immediate a threat does Saddam pose--and what are the benefits and drawbacks of a military operation to overthrow him? A NEWSWEEK Briefing Book:

How Dangerous Is Saddam Right Now?

The answer would be "not very" if the Iraqi dictator didn't command scientific teams with 20 years' know-how in covert chemical- and biological-weapons programs. These teams are almost certainly rebuilding stockpiles to replace those destroyed by U.N. inspectors after the gulf war. The world learned that Saddam had no qualms about using such weapons in 1988, when he released a toxic mixture of mustard gas, cyanide and nerve agents on Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq. But it wasn't until after the gulf war that U.N. inspectors uncovered Saddam's ambitious biological-weapons program. The inspectors destroyed large stockpiles, and demolished key production facilities. But they never believed they found everything. And based on what the inspectors found, Saddam could now be growing anthrax, botulinum toxin and perhaps even smallpox strains. His favored chemical weapon is known to be VX nerve agent. Saddam may still have a hidden stockpile of bombs and artillery shells he could fill with these agents. He is thought to have stashed away perhaps 12 to 18 Scud missiles of the sort he fired in the gulf war. And it's possible Iraqi missile designers have perfected a method of filling warheads with toxins--something they tried and failed to accomplish in the past.

A more momentous question is whether Saddam has nuclear weapons. Most intelligence and military experts believe he doesn't, and isn't close to getting them. Iraq did have an ambitious nuclear program in the '80s. But it was completely dismantled after the gulf war. Intelligence officials privately say there is no evidence he has since made --significant progress in his efforts to build nuclear weapons. And nuclear production is difficult to hide. Unlike biological weapons, which can be covertly made in small quantities inside a hospital or public-health lab, creating nukes requires vast facilities, and the process uses so much electricity that the power lines can easily be spotted by satellite. Saddam could shop for the necessary nuclear material on the black market. But intelligence officials say there is no evidence he has made any recent attempts to do that. The president's position: better to stop him before he gets the bomb, not after.

How Strong Is Saddam's Military?

The Iraqi dictator commands a fairly sizable Army--as many as 430,000 soldiers, by some estimates--though far fewer than the 1.2 million soldiers Iraq had during the gulf war. But the ranks are populated with poorly trained conscripts, and they may be reluctant to fight. Most of the Army's 2,000 tanks are obsolete; even Saddam's 700 "newer" tanks, 30-year-old T-72s, proved no match for U.S. tanks during the gulf war. …

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