Byline: SAM KILEY
SADDAM HUSSEIN opened up what the Americans claim is his secret atomic factory for the first time today.
I was the first British journalist to see the al Qaim "uranium processing plant" at Akashat, 280 miles west of Baghdad and just three miles from the border with Syria on the banks of the Euphrates. This is where the Americans say the Iraqi dictator is stockpiling nuclear weapons and where the Iraqis insist they are not.
In a public relations move to divide Western opinion before any US-led attack on Iraq, Saddam's top officials took a party of journalists by helicopter to see the plant where US Vice-President Dick Cheney warns Saddam could produce a nuclear weapon "fairly soon". Here - the Americans allege - the Iraqis have stockpiled tons of uranium oxide known as yellow cake.
The US claims were prompted by German intelligence satellite images which allegedly show that Iraq is adding to its known hoard of 168 tons of yellow cake at the al Qaim phosphate factory. However, neither I nor other reporters on the tour would have known yellow cake from marzipan. And what we were not shown were at least 70 other buildings in the complex, where 3,500 workers were refining chemicals.
My tour of al Qaim came as Tony Blair flew back to Britain to warn that Saddam Hussein poses a genuine threat to Britain.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz is due to meet UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the Earth Summit today to discuss the possible return of UN weapons inspectors. But Iraq already has the know-how, the triggers for a device, and at least nine modified Scud missiles, former United Nations weapons inspectors and a defector from Saddam's nuclear programme have warned.
All Saddam needs now, they say, is the weapons grade uranium to put in his bomb. And that, it is claimed, is refined at al Qaim.
"Nonsense," said General Hassam Mohammed Amin, who is head of Saddam's nuclear programme.
"The Bush administration has put these lies out to silence antiwar sentiments being expressed in the US and Europe."
Al Qaim had been flattened, he said, adding: "It was bombed heavily by the Americans in 1991, inspected 27 times after that by the UN, which also installed monitoring cameras, and all the yellow cake was locked up in Baghdad and verified by the International Atomic Energy Authority's joint control with Iraq."
Our inspection followed a bone-shaking two hour ride on a military helicopter. …