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Is Building Up a Picture of Vast Iraqi Atom Program
By Michael Wines
WASHINGTON, Sept. 26 — From spy satellites, defectors and United Nations inspections, the Bush Administration has assembled the outline of an Iraqi nuclear-weapons program that is far grander and more sophisticated than first suspected and that President Saddam Hussein is still working to shield from destruction, officials say.
Government and private experts who have reviewed that outline estimated today that the Iraqi program employed 10,000 or more scientists, technicians and other workers. They said it consumed billions of dollars in the 1980's, when Iraq was struggling for survival in a war with Iran.
Much of the program's bricks-and-mortar base was damaged or destroyed in the Persian Gulf war. But officials said other key materials and equipment survived the air attacks and are now being hidden from inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency who are in Iraq under a United Nations mandate.
More important, they said, Iraq's formidable corps of nuclear scientists, engineers and weapons experts escaped the war virtually unharmed and could be reassembled at will should outside inspections end and global trade sanctions against Iraq be lifted.
"What we've found is that Iraq now has the largest technical and scientific base in the Middle East," said Ahmed Hashim, a Washington-based consultant on Middle Eastern affairs and expert on Iraq's military. "I'd say Israel's is qualitatively better, but in terms of numbers, Iraq is the largest."
Mr. Hashim, a physicist, estimated that the Iraqis might well have exploded a reasonably sophisticated nuclear weapon by 1993 or 1994 and detonated a hydrogen bomb several years later had the gulf war not cut short their plans.
Other Government experts have conceded that Iraq's nuclear effort was far more advanced than was depicted last year by American intelligence analysts. Those analysts said then that Iraq might have produced a single crude atomic device in less than a year under a crash program, but that it was 5 to 10 years away from being able to produce more weapons, assembly-line style.
The Administration outline indicates that Iraq has employed not one, but four separate technologies in an all-out effort to manufacture plutonium and enriched uranium, either of which can form the core of an atomic bomb. It also shows that Iraq's program has received substantial outside help, although the identities of several foreign companies or governments involved in the program remain unknown.
Seized Iraqi records and United Nations inspections show that the weapons program imported highly sensitive and restricted technologies. Among them were carbon-fiber rotors used in high-speed uranium gas centrifuges, and super-hard maraging steel that can be used both in centrifuges and in a bomb itself.
Administration officials said that Iraqi Government documents found this week by an inspection team from the Atomic Energy Agency may hold a master list of foreign suppliers. Although the team and the documents remain trapped in a Baghdad parking lot, at least some information or copies of the documents have been passed to officials at the United Nations or the atomic energy agency, an Administration official said today.
That official, like other Government experts interviewed, spoke on condition that he not be identified.
A senior Pentagon official said today that the inspection team in Iraq singled out the Baghdad office building and the actual room where Iraqi nuclear documents were being stored after being given a tip from a recent defector. The existence of the defector was first reported by CBS News.
At Least Three Defect
That defector is one of at least three Iraqi officials with detailed knowledge of the nuclear program who have fled to allied intelligence agencies since the war ended on Feb. 28, the Pentagon official said.
The first defector, an engineer who remains unidentified, disclosed that broad sections of the Iraqi nuclear-weapons project had escaped bombardment and that other key parts had almost entirely escaped detection. Among them were a vast assembly of electromagnetic devices that were already prepared to start producing enriched, bomb-grade enriched uranium.
American analysts had discounted the possibility that Iraq was using calutrons because they were judged inefficient and slow when the United States employed them in the 1940's to produce the cores of the first atom bombs. Most experts had concluded that Iraq was seeking to enrich its uranium through the use of delicate, fast-spinning centrifuges that separate the heavier and lighter isotopes of uranium gas.
Inspectors and intelligence agencies have since learned that the Iraqis were pursuing both routes. Scientists had improved the electromagnetic separation process and built three sites for testing and production of enriched uranium, inspectors have concluded.
Moreover, Iraq also was studying the production of bomb-grade uranium by a third, method, called thermal diffusion, and had secretly produced a minute amount of plutonium by cheating on international inspection safeguards at its experimental nuclear reactor in Tuwaitha. Inspectors from the atomic energy agency discovered the plutonium last month.
Administration officials said today that Iraq's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs, all mandated for destruction under the terms of a cease-fire dictated to Iraq at the close of the war, are currently dormant. But official said that Iraq still maintains the potential and the desire to rebuild its program.
Satellite photographs show that the Baghdad Government is actively seeking to hide weapons and equipment from United Nations inspectors, loading them aboard trucks that are moved each night, storing them in garages and, by one account, even burying chemical weapons containers in graveyards.
As of August 2006, Iraq Watch is no longer being updated. Click here for more information.
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