- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 11, 2002

President Bush's recent declaration that Iraq was close to making a nuclear bomb in 1991 has been bolstered by an unlikely source Baghdad.

A key architect of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs has told reporters his quest for a nuclear bomb was nearly achieved when allied planes struck in January 1991, destroying much of the country's weapons-making facilities.

The statement of Iraqi Gen. Amar al Saadi also conflicts somewhat with the last assessment of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which downplayed reports that Baghdad nearly built the bomb.

Gen. Saadi, a London-educated chemical engineer and top weapons adviser to Saddam Hussein, strongly suggested Iraq's well-funded nuclear weapons programs was close to a bomb in 1991. It marked the first public confession from a member of Saddam's inner-circle that the hard-line regime was bent on becoming a nuclear power.

"We haven't reached the final assembly of a bomb nor tested it," Gen. Saadi said, suggesting key components were ready for assembly. "So if you want to follow that, there's no guarantee that you would succeed. We don't know. It's for others to judge. It's for the IAEA to judge how close we were."

Then, in a bit of bravado that leads some Pentagon officials to believe Iraq deceived IAEA inspectors before 1991, Gen. Saadi said, "If I tell you we were close, it is maybe promotional."

In a press conference Sunday in Baghdad to explain Iraq's 12,000-page weapons declaration, Gen. Saadi said bomb makers had reached the point where triggers for a bomb were being made. He referred to one facility where the "final shaping of the device" was under way.

"Now, in the nuclear jargon, device is the it's the bomb," he said.

Iraq's lengthy declaration, which reached the United Nations on Sunday night and is now being analyzed by U.S. weapons experts, contains 2,081 pages on Iraq's nuclear quest.

In a sense, Gen. Saadi's statement that Iraq came so close, but failed to build the bomb, shows how effective the Desert Storm air campaign was in destroying bomb-making sites. The allies further disrupted the program with the defections of key Iraqi scientists, who led the Vienna, Austria-based IAEA to secret caches thought safe by Gen. Saadi's department.

"The intelligence community is often well behind estimating when a country will have nuclear weapons and this appears to be another one," said a Pentagon official.

The CIA's latest assessment of Iraq's weapons program said that after Saddam's troops invaded Kuwait in 1991 he commenced a rush program to divert highly enriched uranium from nuclear reactors to hasten construction of a bomb. But Iraq only had a few months before the allies began the air campaign and the task was not completed.

"In the absence of inspections, however, most analysts assess that Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear program unraveling the IAEA's hard-earned accomplishments," the CIA said in October.

Mr. Bush often cites Iraq's desire to own nuclear weapons as a key reason to disarm the country.

He misstated one fact in September when he asserted that the IAEA's 1998 report said Iraq was six months away from the bomb. "I would remind you that when the inspectors first went into Iraq and were denied finally denied access [in 1998], a report came out of the Atomic the IAEA that they were six months away from developing a weapon."

Mark Gwozdecky, the agency's chief spokesman, later rebutted those remarks. "There's never been a report like that issued from this agency," he said.

But Iraqi Gen. Saadi's assessment on Sunday seems to support Mr. Bush's contention that Iraq was dangerously close in 1991 and could reach that point again, absent intense international scrutiny.

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