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Iraq: Arms Experts Say Nuclear And Missile Threats Contained (Part 1)

  • Charles Recknagel

Washington and London say time is rapidly running out for Baghdad to cooperate with United Nations arms inspectors or face U.S.-led military action. But many other countries, including France, Russia, and Germany, say the inspectors deserve more time to do their work and that there is no urgent need to disarm Iraq by force. The dispute over time largely comes from different perceptions of how immediate a threat Iraq's suspected weapons-of-mass-destruction programs pose to global security. In a two-part series, RFE/RL asks arms experts to assess the degrees of danger Baghdad's weapons programs pose. Part 1 looks at nuclear weapons and missiles.

Prague, 30 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- As the debate rages over how much more time to give UN arms inspectors in Iraq, clear differences are emerging in how different parties view the threat posed by Iraq's suspected weapons programs.

Washington and London have called the threat immediate. That argument hinges largely on U.S. officials' arguments that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein could supply weapons of mass destruction to international terrorist groups to attack the United States or other Western targets.

In the wake of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, U.S. President George W. Bush has called such a risk unacceptable and has indicated that he wants Iraq disarmed in a matter of weeks, not months, to remove it.

Other states have not widely adopted the U.S.-British position. Officials in Paris, Berlin, and Moscow argue that Iraq is a regional security problem, that is, a military, not a terrorist, threat that can be safely dealt with through a conventional disarmament process.

That process is now in progress since UN arms inspectors returned to work in November after being banned from Iraq for four years.

To learn more about how arms experts view the dangers posed by Iraq's suspected weapons-of-mass-destruction programs, RFE/RL recently interviewed two specialists at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden.

Our correspondent began by asking Shannon Kile, an expert on nuclear-weapons and missile programs, to describe the status of Baghdad's efforts to develop a nuclear bomb.

Kile said that Iraq had an active nuclear-weapons programs prior to the 1991 Gulf War and was widely believed at that time to be just several years away from developing a usable weapon. But in 1998, after years of arms inspections, the International Atomic Energy Agency certified that Iraq's infrastructure for the nuclear program was destroyed and that its weapons-grade material had been confiscated.

Kile that today there is no evidence that Iraq has revived its dismantled nuclear program. "We would have to say now that there is no evidence that Iraq has tried to revive its nuclear program or that it has a nuclear program currently under way. If they wanted to develop an indigenous capability to produce fissile materials, those facilities would almost certainly be detected," Kile said.

Kile said that any Iraqi nuclear program would require substantial, and visible, facilities to enrich uranium to the point it can be used as fissile material in a nuclear bomb.

Kile said that arms-control experts are concerned about reports that Iraq has sought to purchase natural uranium from Africa. But he said that such material is only a first step in a much more complicated chain of events required to produce enriched uranium and a nuclear weapon. "What is troubling is that Iraq currently has no use for uranium of that sort. It has no nuclear-power reactors or civilian nuclear program under way except for a very small research facility which is used for producing medical-grade isotopes," Kile said. [But], of course, just having the material itself, that's a long way from having a complete fuel cycle, [meaning], that doesn't do anything about getting them toward having a uranium-enrichment capability or any of the other necessary steps in the fuel cycle toward developing nuclear weapons."

Instead, nuclear-arms inspectors' main concerns over Iraq are that Baghdad could one day procure substantial amounts of fissile material from foreign sources as the basis for making its own bomb. Iraq is believed to have a workable design for a bomb and teams of capable nuclear scientists who could assemble one. "I think most people agree that Iraq does have a viable nuclear-weapon design and they have the technical expertise in place that they would probably be able to assemble a device within six to 12 months, or maybe up to two years, if they were able to acquire the fissile material from outside sources," Kile said.

But Kile noted that, so far, there is no evidence to suggest that Iraq has obtained, or even could obtain, sufficient quantities of fissile material with which to produce a nuclear device. "There have been numerous reports of illicit smuggling and trafficking in nuclear and fissile materials in the last decade. As far as I know, there are no credible reports of materials being smuggled or otherwise acquired in the amounts that would allow a state or a sub-state group to actually manufacture a nuclear weapon," Kile said.

While Iraq has sought to develop nuclear weapons, it has also maintained an ambitious missile program that one day might be used to carry them or other weapons of mass destruction.

Iraq's missile program was highly visible during the 1991 Gulf War, when Baghdad launched scores of Soviet-designed long-range Scud missiles against countries including Saudi Arabia and Israel.

It is uncertain how many remaining Scud missiles Baghdad may have been able to hide from arms inspectors in the 1990s and still have ready for use. But arms inspectors do know that Iraq recently has been trying to extend the striking distance of much-shorter-range missiles that it is permitted to keep under UN restrictions.

Chief UN arms inspector Hans Blix told the Security Council this week that during the past four years Iraq has field-tested a liquid-fueled missile, known as the Al-Samud 2, to a maximum distance of 183 kilometers. It has also tested a solid-propellant missile, the Al-Fatah, to a maximum distance of 161 kilometers. Both exceed the UN limit for Iraqi missiles of 150 kilometers.

Blix also said the new missiles, which do not have sufficient range to reach Israel, have already been provided to the Iraqi armed forces.

Kile said that Iraq's missile programs worry arms inspectors because it is difficult to know exactly how far the missiles' range could be extended beyond what has already been proven in the field tests. "The trouble there is that nobody knows exactly what the ranges would be, because we know that Iraq has rebuilt the so-called casting chambers which were previously destroyed by the United Nations, and they can use those to make missiles with significantly longer ranges -- we just don't know how long," Kile said.

But he said that now that arms inspectors have returned to Iraq, they should represent a sufficient safeguard against Iraq conducting any further field tests that would be needed to turn the upgraded rockets into reliable battlefield weapons. "Presumably, at some point they would want to test those missiles, and that would, of course, be detected by both the inspectors and other states. The missiles could be developed, but you would want to be able to flight-test them, and, in the absence of flight testing, you could never have confidence in their reliability or accuracy," Kile said.

U.S. officials have suggested that Iraq may turn weapons of mass destruction, which include missiles, over to terrorist groups. But arms experts say that there is little reason for Baghdad to do this because of the difficulty in smuggling missiles and the ease with which they can be traced to the manufacturer.

Beyond nuclear weapons and missiles, Iraq has long engaged in programs to develop biological and chemical arms. Much of the liveliest debate over the immediacy of the dangers Iraq poses focuses on these programs, because they are the easiest to hide from inspectors and foreign intelligence services.

Our correspondent looks at Iraq's progress in both the biological- and chemical-weapons areas in the second part of this two-part series.