How close is Iraq to the bomb?

Hussein could be just months away from having nuclear weapons.

A little over 20 years ago, the US strongly condemned Israel for bombing a nuclear reactor in Iraq that Israel claimed could have been used to produce nuclear weapons.

Now, the US is making the case – at home, at the UN, and abroad – to remove Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein because he may be close to obtaining a nuclear bomb.

The about-face, of course, has been two decades in the making as the Iraqi regime has committed a multitude of transgressions, including the invasion of Kuwait and the discovery after the Gulf War that Iraq had been only six months away from producing a crude nuclear bomb. Then there were the ups and downs of the UN-mandated weapons inspections, and their abrupt end in 1998.

Although experts and intelligence officials say they can't tell for sure without examining the country's facilities, they say Iraq isn't likely to have a bomb at this point. Moreover, they say the Iraqi regime would be at least months away from getting one, even if the fissile material necessary to explode a nuclear device could be smuggled in.

Still, no one seems to doubt that the Iraqi leader is pursuing a nuclear bomb. "The reality here is that the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction has been cumulative and unrelenting on the part of Iraq," says Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

In President Bush's speech at the UN last week, he laid out some of President Hussein's efforts to acquire either the fissile material or the parts needed to produce it.

• Iraq has the nuclear scientists and technicians necessary to build a weapon.

• It has the facilities necessary to complete the task, and recent satellite photos show increased activity around them.

• It has attempted to smuggle in aluminum tubes for a centrifuge – a machine used to enrich uranium.

The administration doesn't have a smoking gun at this point, but they are most certainly looking for one.

At the same time, there have been increased US and British airstrikes over Iraq – the largest number, in fact, in the past four years. This might be part of an attempt to open up facilities or underground installations so it can be learned what's going on there.

In addition, international authorities have conducted more searches of Iraqi imports. "My personal view is I suspect the administration will come out with some evidence," says Judith Yaphe, a former intelligence analyst and an Iraq expert at the National Defense University. "Either in terms of smuggling things in, or a discovery of a clandestine acquisition abroad through either front companies or private individuals."

She goes on to say that such activity formed a pattern before the Gulf War, as well as during the UN-mandated inspections, and she could only assume that it continues.

She and other experts, including those at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London who just completed an assessment of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, say they're sure Iraq has continued to pursue these weapons. But they say there's no way to tell how close Iraq is without surveying the situation firsthand.

Still, the concerns are gaining urgency. "If Iraq were somehow able to acquire nuclear-weapons useable material," the IISS report says, "it could probably produce nuclear weapons in a relatively short time."

One growing concern is that changing technology may have made it easier for Iraq to hide its efforts. "The equipment is smaller," says Jay Davis, a national-security fellow at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab and a former UNSCOM inspector. "It's easier to hide."

With that in mind, and the fact that inspectors have not been permitted to visit any Iraqi nuclear facilities since 1998, the IISS report concludes that the country has likely been pursuing a nuclear bomb. It goes on to quote the most recent public assessment by the CIA: "We believe that Iraq has probably continued at least low-level theoretical R&D associated with its nuclear program."

Senior lawmakers, who will begin holding hearings on endorsing Mr. Bush's plans for Iraq this week, have asked intelligence officials to come up with an updated National Intelligence Estimate – a document that would combine the best and latest intelligence analyses from the CIA, the Pentagon, State Department, and others.

"We owe it to America's parents and our country's troops," says Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, "to have [our decision on going to war with Iraq] informed by the latest threat assessment that cross-analyzes agency intelligence about Saddam Hussein's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction."

Gulf War assessments

A report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London has chronicled the impact of the 1991 Gulf War on Iraq's nuclear weapons sites:

• The Al-Tuwaitha research reactors and related nuclear installations were damaged or destroyed.

• The uranium separation plants Al-Qaim and Al-Jesira were destroyed.

• Two facilities used to produce highly enriched uranium, Al-Tarmiya and Al-Sharqat, were heavily bombed.

• The headquarters for nuclear weapons design, Al-Altheer, was only slightly damaged.

• The center for centrifuge research, Rashida, and the facility for centrifuge production, Al-Furat, were not hit.

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