IT took a full week of technical assessment and bureaucratic bickering before experts came up with the definitive answer: Yes, Iraq had ordered and tried to smuggle out of Britain the components of a giant gun with a range of up to 900 miles. Before the conclusion was reached, British government departments were at odds. Some said it was a gun, others that it was only a piece of oil pipeline. The British Foreign Office, anxious to avoid a diplomatic break with Iraq, only reluctantly acknowledged that the Baghdad regime had cheated over specifications for the weapon.
In the wake of the finding, governments in Europe and beyond have been alerted to the President Saddam Hussein's apparent drive to tip the Middle East military balance against Israel. It was, a British Defense Ministry expert declared, ``a very close run thing.'' Other attempts might be made, using manufacturers in other countries, the official said.
At first, claims that parts for a ``supergun'' in the guise of eight segments of piping for a petrochemical works sounded like excerpts from a new novel by Frederick Forsyth. The huge segments were discovered by customs officers at a British port, awaiting shipment to Iraq.
The customs men insisted that it was a gun with a barrel three feet in diameter and 150 feet long. Officials of the Department of Trade were just as adamant that it was not - and could not be.
The companies that had made the equipment said they thought it was for an oil pipe. As the argument raged, the news media had a field day, noting (crucially, as it turned out) that Gerald Bull, a Canadian scientist who had worked for years on the development of giant guns, had been murdered March 22 in Brussels.
In the Belgian capital, Dr. Bull had directed a company called the Space Research Corporation.
Last week, an embarrassed Nicholas Ridley, Britain's trade secretary, told the House of Commons that the giant pipes were intended for a gun. Within hours, as one cargo of components remained under guard in Britain, two other pipe shipments traveling overland to Iraq were seized at the Greek port of Patras, near Athens, and in Turkey.
Meanwhile, Bull's company was closed amid reports that it had negotiated the deals for manufacture of the supergun's components by British companies.
Denis Healey, a former British defense secretary, says this attempt at gun running on a grand scale underlines a double threat. First, there is Iraq's determination to acquire a range of weapons and delivery systems that would give it the capacity to threaten many of its neighbors, including Israel and Iran.
Secondly, Mr. Healey stresses the threat of an accelerated arms race in developing countries.
``The end of the cold war,'' he says, ``has made it possible for the Soviet Union and the West to cut their defense spending. It has done nothing to slow the arms race in the third world.''
Healey's view squares with private assessments by British and other European officials as they try to put the Iraqi supergun incident into perspective.
Seizure of the components came only three weeks after a foiled attempt by Iraq to smuggle out of Britain a consignment of nuclear triggers. This strongly suggested Iraq is well ahead with the building of a nuclear weapon.
A gun of the type Bull was working on could, if proven effective, be used as a nuclear delivery system, British officials say. At the time of his death, Bull allegedly had been helping Iraq to build a gun capable of firing warheads hundreds of miles.
The squabble among British ministries caused by the seizure of the gun parts betrayed a good measure of interdepartmental bungling. But it also reflected confusion over relations with the Baghdad regime.
Last March, the Iraqi authorities executed an Iranian-born British journalist for alleged spying in the desert near a secret scientific installation. Britain, which continues to regard Iraq as an important Middle East state, protested at the execution, but did not to break diplomatic ties.
It took the same approach when the nuclear triggers were discovered. As reports of the seizure of the gun parts reached the British Foreign Office, and the Ministry of Defense, there appears to have been deep official reluctance to confirm their truth.
According to British defense officials, the arrangements made by Iraq for the manufacture of components of the gun suggest an elaborate scheme of deception that nearly worked.
But Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said last week that the companies building the components should have notified the government about their suspicions.
Later, however, a leading Conservative member of Parliament told the house that acting on behalf of one company he had personally warned the government about the possible implications of the project two years earlier. This weekend a British newspaper reported that the supergun contract had been approved by the Ministry of Defense in June 1988.
Iraq, meanwhile, remains adamant that charges that it planned to build a giant cannon are false.
On April 20, a Foreign Ministry statement in Baghdad said the steel tubes were intended for a petrochemical plant. It hinted that if Britain continued with its charges, Iraq would retaliate by cutting trade ties.