WITH the bitter experience of what they consider ``Iraq's programmed destruction by the West'' still fresh in their minds - and at the tip of their tongues - Algerians are taking recent reports of Western concern over their country's nuclear-energy development program as part of a long pattern of threats against Arab technological development. The Washington Times and the Washington Post recently reported United States government suspicions concerning the objectives of a large nuclear reactor under construction in Algeria with Chinese cooperation.
The Sunday Times of London then referred to a British intelligence services report, which claimed that the reactor under construction, if accompanied with the right technology, could put Algeria in possession of the first Arab atomic bomb by 1998.
China has been accused of selling technology for nuclear-weapons development in the past. Some observers conclude that US (and presumably Central Intelligence Agency) intentions in leaking its interest in the Algerian project were primarily to caution China on nuclear nonproliferation. (US-Chinese ties, Page 6.)
Strongly nationalist newspapers here, however, claim that Algeria is being targeted because it is the ``last Arab hope'' for development of a strong technological power independent of the West.
Many people on the street refer to air raids carried out over the last decade against Iraqi and Libyan ``technological'' installations and say Algeria will be next - almost as if it would be a badge of courage.
Official response is categoric as to the project's ``peaceful intentions'' and is more measured than the public's, concerning Western intentions. But the conclusions are parallel.
``We see similarity in the process that led to Iraq's destruction and what now seems to be set in motion in our case,'' says a highly placed source at the Foreign Ministry. ``With these stories of atom bombs raised just at this moment, we feel we are right to have apprehensions.''
Algeria is not a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But officials note the country placed Algeria's first nuclear reactor, a much smaller project, under International Atomic Energy Agency supervision. And they say the same will occur when the reactor now under construction is completed.
``That is a voluntary act of reassurance,'' says the Foreign Ministry source. ``Israel has been asked to do the same thing [with its nuclear program], but it did not. In our case, we will do it.''
The source said such assurances were given in a Monday meeting between the US ambassador here and Algerian Foreign Minister Sid Ahmed Ghozali.
The same day, in the government's first detailed response to Western reports, the minister of scientific research and technology told reporters that the project is a 15-megawatt reactor designed for research and electricity generation. The minister said desalination of sea water and food preservation technology are included in the project's areas of research. He also said agreements signed with China guarantee the project's ``peaceful purposes.''
But following the British military attach'e's expulsion from the country after being arrested near the reactor project with a camera, it was Britain's turn to divulge an intelligence report on the reactor project. The report mentioned the Algerian public's strong support for Iraq in the Gulf war - and concerns over a possible Islamic fundamentalist victory in June elections.
A Western source says US and French satellites still take pictures of the project, and the Algerian press asks if Algeria ``will be next.''