Iraq's atomic intentions -- the view from Baghdad

King Khalid's announcement that Saudi Arabia will finance the rebuilding of Iraq's nuclear reactor, destroyed by Israel in a June 7 air raid, reopens questions of Iraq's atomic intentions.

Western sources here believe it never was Iraq's short-term intent to use the reactor, now strictly sealed off from the public, for building an atomic bomb. This conclusion -- which, if true, would seem to counter Israel's allegations and the motive for the air raid -- rests on several diplomatic observations:

* The reactor, to the best knowledge of Western sources in Baghdad, was not designed to produce weapons-grade plutonium. This is a tricky conclusion because independent verification is impossible outside the periodic inspection conducted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) based in Vienna. But this observation has been repeated frequently by different diplomats in Baghdad.

* Even if the reactor could have had military applications, it would be many years, these sources say, before bomb material could be made. Then it would be a matter of developing an effective delivery system and defenses against inevitable retaliation.

* Though an oil power, Iraq has realized high income only since 1973, when energy prices began their great rise. Revenues from the 2.4 million barrels per day (bpd) that Iraq was producing before the war with Iran broke out last fall (estimates now put production at 1.2 million bpd) must be weighed against the 13 million Iraqis living in a rather narrow belt of fertility provided by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Western analysts say Iraq is on an all- out building and industrialization program -- one that stems from a Baathist commitment to "national revival" and one made apparent by the ubiquitous giant cranes and scaffolded structures everywhere.

Alternative sources of energy are being explored in anticipation of the day that the still-unquantified reserves of oil run out. Three hydroelectric power plants have been built in the north of the country. A nuclear facility was a logical step, says one observer, given the electrical, agricultural, and medical applications of atomic power and the genuine belief of Iraqis in scientific development.

The French contract to build the reactor runs until the mid-1980s. Those monitoring industrial contracts say France is moving toward an agreement with Iraq to honor the contract -- though possibly with even greater safeguards than originally. This is because France has many building projects in Iraq, receives much Iraqi oil, and is vying for large military contracts.

Iraqi officials here maintain the Israeli attack on June 7 was designed to "prevent our progress" more than to eliminate any possible nuclear threat. Intentions cannot be measured, of course, but the independent view from here is that the reactor probably was not a threat.

This, then, would have to be measured against the Israeli argument that even the chance of a threat could not be tolerated.

Nuclear technology does have both civilian and military applications. In the long run, there may well have been military uses for an Iraqi nuclear capability. With the reactor likely now to be rebuilt and with President Saddam Hussein's recent statement indicating the Arabs indeed should have an atomic bomb to ballance Israel's atomic bombs, it is possible that Iraq will work toward nuclear weaponry in the fut ure.

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