Iraq's Weapons Grab

THE foiling last week of Iraq's effort to buy electronic switches that can be used as nuclear bomb ``triggers'' raises disturbing questions: How close is Iraq to realizing its nuclear ambitions? How close is the Mideast to becoming a region studded with weapons of mass destruction? Israel is widely believed already to have a nuclear arsenal. And Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein this week proclaimed his country's possession of ``dual chemical,'' or binary, chemical weapons and his readiness to use them against Israel.

President Hussein has repeatedly denied that Iraq is building nuclear weapons. But the nuclear trigger incident throws fresh doubts on that denial. Iraq's testing of long-range missiles and construction of launching pads show its intent to exert its power, either chemical or nuclear, in the region. Iran and Syria, as well as Israel, have ample cause for concern.

What constraints are there on Iraq?

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As a party to the Nuclear NonProliferation Treaty, Baghdad officially has forsworn weapons production and agreed to international inspection of its nuclear facilities. Israel, on the other hand, has not signed the treaty. Presumably, inspectors would note any Iraqi move to enrich nuclear fuel for use in weapons and blow the whistle. Negative publicity from violating the treaty might deter Iraq. But is the threat of bad publicity enough?

Some members of Congress propose sanctions against Iraq. If the evidence to back them is there, such actions as temporary denial of export credits could force Hussein to consider the consequences of his policies. To be truly effective, however, trade sanctions would have to involve the British, French, West Germans, Soviets, and others who have helped arm Iraq.

The world is struggling to move away from the accumulation of nuclear and chemical weaponry, and Iraq has supposedly aligned itself with that struggle by signing a treaty. But it has also shown itself capable of unleashing the terrors of chemical warfare.

Other nations have an undeniable interest in keeping a politically explosive region from becoming, itself, a nuclear trigger. Iraq should recognize that its own interests lie in that direction, too.

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