WASHINGTON — WHEN the United Nations inspection team entered the Al Hamath workshop area its Iraqi escorts insisted the place was perfectly innocent. The site's two large buildings were but truck maintenance facilities, they said. Or maybe they were machine shops. Empty as the buildings were, who could tell?Considering that the site boasted a crane labeled "Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission" and enough electrical power to light a small city, the UN inspectors were dubious. They concluded from other evidence that the site was involved in making magnets for production of weapons-grade uranium. "Neither declared usage of these buildings is credible," said the inspectors' report to the UN Security Council. This incident from the first trip of nuclear inspectors to Iraq set the tone for what came after: dissembling and reluctance on the part of the Iraqis, and a growing recognition on the part of the rest of the world that the Iraqi nuclear program is far broader than any intelligence service had realized. The dogged UN inspection teams have conclusively proved that Iraq was not satisfied with crude nuclear devices and was planning to build nuclear weapons of great sophistication.
No specific target The Iraqi program was not directed against one country, according to inspection team leader David Kay, but was rather a long-term effort to create an indigenous infrastructure for becoming a nuclear power. Iraq is undoubtedly still concealing nuclear secrets. And the knowledge in the minds of Iraqi scientists is something no UN team can cart away. "Clearly, a long-term monitoring and verification program of substantial intrusiveness must be maintained in Iraq to ensure that a clandestine program does not restart," Mr. Kay told a congressional panel last week. Before the Gulf war, Western intelligence judged Iraq's nuclear program to be somewhat rudimentary, similar to that suspected to be under way in Pakistan. Instead, they found something comparable in management techniques to America's own Manhattan Project. The Iraqi approach to the most difficult part of weapons production - acquisition of fissionable materials - reflects this. By pursuing three methods of enriching uranium, Iraqi scientists were clearly laying the groundwork for continuing weapons production, not just one bomb. The fact that Western intelligence services were unaware that Iraq was even pursuing the so-called calutron enrichment method shows how little was known before the Gulf war. Calutrons are old-fashioned and energy-intensive, but the UN teams have determined them to be Saddam Hussein's priority means of enrichment, with gas centrifuges as first backup. According to UN reports, Iraqi scientists claim to be having problems with perhaps the hardest part of perfecting calutrons: ion beam sources. But despite discovery of extensive calutron production, inspectors think Iraq is still hiding what it knows about this key aspect of weapons technology. "There is no doubt that Iraq has developed the technological and industrial infrastructure necessary for [calutrons]," says an inspection report. Documents obtained on the most recent inspection trip, during which David Kay and his team were surrounded for four days in a Baghdad parking lot, have proved to be a gold mine. Among other things they provided conclusive evidence that Iraq was working on an implosion-type nuclear weapon design that has already gone through five substantial revisions. Iraqi scientists were planning production of lithium-6, a chemical used in greatly boosting explosive power of basic atomic bombs and in the construction of hydrogen weapons.
Speculation on weapons Before the war, speculation about the Iraqi program had centered on crude gun-type weapons which just shoot cylinders of enriched uranium together to achieve an explosion. Implosion weapons compress a sphere of material and require precise machining and sophisticated knowledge of explosives behavior. They use less fissionable material - a big advantage - and are smaller and more flexible. Small enough, for instance, to be mounted on the tip of a ballistic missile. And the Iraqi documents linked the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission with a surface-to-surface missile design, "presumably the intended delivery system for their nuclear weapon," according to a UN report. Nuclear proliferation experts have been shocked by the extent of the Iraqi program. The situation shows that it was wrong to believe massive cheating on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at undeclared sites could not remain undetected.