- The Washington Times - Friday, July 26, 2002

Iraq's government is trying to buy special equipment used in producing fuel for nuclear weapons, The Washington Times has learned.

Procurement agents from Iraq's covert nuclear-arms program were detected as they tried to purchase stainless-steel tubing, uniquely used in gas centrifuges and a key component in making the material for nuclear bombs, from an unknown supplier, said administration officials familiar with intelligence reports.

U.S. intelligence agencies believe the tubing is an essential component of Iraq's plans to enrich radioactive uranium to the point where it could be used to fashion a nuclear bomb.

Efforts by Iraq to build nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and missiles are a key reason that the Bush administration has called for the overthrow of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

The covert nuclear-acquisition effort was detected in mid-June, and reports about the activities were then circulated to senior Bush administration policy officials.

"This is only one sign that Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear-weapons program," one official said.

Officials say other evidence exists that Iraq is rebuilding its nuclear program, which was to have been dismantled under U.N. sanctions imposed after the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

Earlier this year, Turkish military intelligence informed the Pentagon that Iraq was believed to have at least one nuclear device. Officials said the report could not be confirmed.

A senior Bush administration official said intelligence reports of the efforts by Iraq to purchase stainless-steel tubing were a troubling sign.

"We know they are trying to obtain this material but so far have not been successful," the official said.

A CIA spokesman declined to comment.

Intelligence reports in recent months have stated that Iraq also is building up its chemical and biological weapons arsenal, the officials said. Iraq's missile program also is continuing within U.N. guidelines.

Iraq expelled U.N. weapons inspectors after U.S. bombing raids in 1998, and its nuclear program has been restarted and accelerated. Baghdad recently broke off talks with the United Nations about restarting weapons inspections.

"Although we were already concerned about a reconstituted nuclear weapons program, our concerns increased in September 2000 when Saddam publicly exhorted his 'Nuclear Mujahidin' to 'defeat the enemy,'" stated a CIA report to Congress made public in January. "The Intelligence Community remains concerned that Baghdad may be attempting to acquire materials that could aid in reconstituting its nuclear weapons program."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said earlier this week that Saddam is attempting to acquire nuclear weapons, saying the evidence of the Iraqi weapons-of-mass-destruction program would be presented "if the time comes for action" to oust Saddam.

"But be in no doubt at all that he is certainly trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction, in particular a nuclear capability," Mr. Blair told Prospect magazine in an interview.

Asked Monday what would provide justification for a military attack on Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he would not talk about specific countries but warned about the growing danger of weapons of mass destruction.

"In the 21st century, we're dealing with weapons of mass destruction chemical, biological, nuclear, radiation that can kill not just hundreds or thousands, but they can kill hundreds of thousands or millions of people in the case of, for example, contagious biological agents," Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon.

"Now we're living in a world with weapons of mass destruction proliferating rather rapidly to a variety of nations, a variety of non-state entities potentially that have already indicated their appetite for the weapon," he said. "They've indicated their willingness to kill as many innocent men, women and children through terrorist acts as they can."

The defense secretary said a debate is under way worldwide about whether to wait for an attack that could kill hundreds of thousands of people, or to act pre-emptively in self-defense against the threat.

"I think you're finding people starting to think about it, starting to talk about it, starting to recognize what the benefits and what the burdens are of different courses of action," Mr. Rumsfeld said.

According to the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, Iraq in the past has sought to create enriched uranium through the use of high-speed centrifuges, which spin uranium hexafluoride gas. The spinning separates out uranium isotope gas that is highly enriched and can fuel a crude nuclear bomb.

Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, said in an interview that stainless-steel tubing would be essential to building such gas centrifuges because the radioactive gas is extremely corrosive.

The Iraqi nuclear-arms program had planned to build a 100-centrifuge "cascade" plant, Al Furat, that would be capable of producing 55 pounds of highly enriched uranium per year, enough for about 1½ nuclear bombs per year, according to a Wisconsin Project report on Iraq's nuclear program.

Mr. Milhollin said that while "not much" is known about Iraq's continuing efforts to build nuclear arms, "we do know that if they were to reconstitute their nuclear program they would need stainless-steel piping."

According to a Wisconsin Project database on Iraq's nuclear program, several German companies attempted to sell special steel and tubing to Iraq for centrifuges in 1990. In 1989, Iraq also obtained Swiss-made equipment used to power centrifuges.

Khidhir Hamza, a former Iraqi nuclear-weapons official who defected in 1994, said Iraq's nuclear program is based on enriching uranium. He said Iraq had about 400 locations in the country where uranium-enrichment work could be carried out in secret.

Mr. Hamza also has said Iraq purchased 130 classified reports from Germany during the 1980s that show how to manufacture centrifuges for uranium enrichment.

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