Wednesday, June 25, 2003

The CIA has uncovered components of a gas centrifuge used to enrich weapons-grade uranium, and a stack of nuclear arms documents in the back yard of an Iraqi scientist, an indication Baghdad was hiding its arms program for future use, a U.S. intelligence official said yesterday.

Iraqi scientist Mahdi Shukur Obeidi, who came forward with the documents and components in late May, hid the items in his back yard under a rosebush 12 years ago, said an official familiar with details of the discovery. Officials confirmed the discovery after it was first reported by CNN.

“These documents and components were deliberately hidden at the direction of Iraq’s senior leadership with the aim of preserving the regime’s capacity to resume construction of a centrifuge that at some point could be used to enrich uranium for a nuclear device,” the intelligence official said.

The official said that the discovery was “not a smoking gun” indicating that Iraq had nuclear weapons, only that it planned to develop them once United Nations sanctions barring Iraq from operating a nuclear-weapons program were lifted. The sanctions were imposed after the Persian Gulf war.

“Their existence validates our long-standing view that Iraq had hidden nuclear technology,” the official said. “And this new evidence indicates that the Iraqis concealed proscribed documents and examples of critical centrifuge components, some of them extremely difficult to manufacture, in contravention of U.N. Security Council resolutions.”

David Kay, a former U.N. weapons inspector now working as an adviser to the CIA, said the finding in Iraq “begins to tell us how huge our job is.”

“Remember his material was buried in a barrel behind his house in a rose garden,” Mr. Kay told CNN. “There’s no way that that would have been discovered by normal international inspections. I couldn’t have done it. My successors couldn’t have done it.”

The centrifuge components were part of Iraq’s pre-1991 uranium-enrichment program, the official said.

“Doctor Obeidi told us [the documents] represent a complete set of what would be needed to rebuild a uranium-enrichment program,” the official said.

The scientist also disclosed to U.S. intelligence that the concealment of the components and documents were “part of a secret high-level plan to reconstitute the nuclear weapons program once sanctions ended,” the official said.

The components include some of the most difficult parts of a centrifuge to produce. Centrifuges require high-strength steel and special bearings because of the high speeds involved in the spinning process.

The disclosure comes as U.S. intelligence agencies are under fire from critics in Congress who said intelligence on Iraq’s hidden weapons of mass destruction were exaggerated to support the policy of going to war.

So far, no hidden stocks of weapons have been found, but two mobile vans were found. U.S. intelligence analysts believe the vans were part of Iraq’s hidden biological-weapons program.

“I don’t want this to proliferate because of the potential consequences if it falls in the hands of tyrants and the hands of dictators or of terrorists,” Mr. Obeidi told CNN.

Officials said Mr. Obeidi and his family were relocated out of Iraq to a third country.

Iraq secretly developed a gas-centrifuge program in the early 1990s that was kept secret from U.S. intelligence until shortly before the start of the 1991 Persian Gulf war. The disclosure showed that before that war, Iraq was close to producing a nuclear bomb.

Gas centrifuges are used to spin gaseous uranium hexafluoride that is enriched into the fuel of a nuclear bomb.

Centrifuges were used to make the first U.S. atomic bombs and the technology is considered the earliest method of making the fissionable material for a bomb. The centrifuges have no other purpose but uranium enrichment.

Army Lt. Gen. John P. Abizaid, the nominee to be the next commander of the U.S. Central Command, said during his Senate confirmation yesterday he believes Iraq’s weapons eventually will be found.

Gen. Abizaid told the Armed Services Committee that he is confident that evidence “at some point … will lead us to actual weapons of mass destruction.”

The general told senators that at one point recently he called his top staff together and asked if anyone believed no weapons would be found. “And to a man and to a woman, they all said we would find it,” he said. “So the confidence of the intelligence professionals and my confidence in them was high, and actually it remains high.”

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