LONDON — IRAQ could be as little as two years away from exploding its first nuclear weapon and altering the strategic balance in the Middle East. This is the conclusion being drawn by British and American experts following the seizure of a consignment of 40 nuclear triggers at Heathrow airport Wednesday. The peanut-sized devices, known as krytrons or electronic capacitors, are used to detonate nuclear weapons.
In the culmination of an 18-month ``sting'' operation, United States and British customs officers seized the devices as they were about to be placed aboard an Iraqi airliner bound for Baghdad. The triggers had apparently been manufactured in the US.
After the seizure, British intelligence sources said Iraq had been known to be working on a nuclear weapon for about 12 years. A 1981 Israeli attack on an Iraqi nuclear plant at Osirak, near Al-Tuweitha, had delayed the program, as had the Iran-Iraq war, the sources said.
Now, however, with an estimated 25 pounds of enriched uranium at their disposal, Iraq's nuclear scientists were attempting to accelerate the program. The seizure of the illegal consignment at Britain's largest airport seems certain to cause new delays.
Krytrons are high-precision electronic triggers used to ignite the conventional explosives that condense the radioactive material in a warhead into a critical mass. A British defense official said the discovery appeared to indicate that Iraq was working on the development of a fairly sophisticated nuclear device.
After the triggers were discovered in an airport cargo house, the British government ordered the deportation of one Iraqi national and the arrest of two others. Iraq's ambassador in London said his government knew nothing about the krytrons.
The discovery comes at a time of strained relations between Britain and Iraq. Four weeks ago, Iraq hanged an Iranian-born journalist working for Britain's Observer newspaper, claiming that he had been caught spying in a secret defense area. The execution brought angry protests from Britain.
There was mystery about the origins of the triggers. It is thought the world's only manufacturer of the type of devices seized is the EG & G company of Wellesley, Massachusetts. A spokesman for the company said it had been asked by the US authorities to supply 40 inoperable krytrons as part of a customs operation. British sources, however, said the Heathrow triggers were usable.
News reports said the San Diego area company CSI Technologies Inc. tipped off officials that Iraqi agents tried to buy capacitors from their company.
The US authorities have blocked two previous attempts - one by Israel and another by Pakistan - to smuggle krytrons out of the United States.
Iraq's nuclear program took on a more ambitious aspect last December when President Saddam Hussein said his scientists had successfully launched a 48-ton, three-stage, ground-to-ground missile known as Al-Abed (the Worshipper).
Western defense analysts say that, if true, the claim would mean Iraq had the ability to strike at targets within a range of 1,400 miles. The new rocket, believed to be an enhanced version of an earlier two-stage missile, known as Condor, would enable Iraq to threaten Israel, which is widely believed to have its own nuclear arsenal, and alter the strategic balance in the Middle East.
Douglas Barrie, a nuclear specialist with the authoritative British magazine Jane's Defence Week said uncovering the attempt to smuggle the krytrons was ``compelling proof'' that Iraq's nuclear weapons program was well ahead, and that the country might soon be able to deliver an operational nuclear weapon.
Until now it had been thought Iraq was at least five years away from producing a nuclear weapon.