Iraq has the capacity to begin manufacturing and using a small but devastating stock of nuclear missiles, shells and bombs within 10 years, U.S., British and Israeli intelligence experts have concluded.
The experts say that Iraq has amply demonstrated that it intends to build a nuclear arsenal from scratch.
They add that its engineers could almost certainly begin limited production of nuclear warheads within a decade unless prevented from doing so by foreign military intervention or foreign economic restrictions.
Drawing from its immense oil revenues, Iraq has already acquired some of the foreign expertise, military secrets, tools, processing machinery, special alloys, electronic components, chemicals, computers, uranium ore and other materials needed for the task.
But even the most pessimistic assessments assume that Iraq will need at least two years to begin warhead production.
Most Western analysts believe that Iraq still faces enormous technical problems in creating a credible nuclear arsenal and that it would take five to 10 years to deploy nuclear warheads, even if the current international blockade were to be lifted.
"My own feeling," said Donald Kerr, an analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, "is that it will be five to seven years, provided someone doesn't destroy Iraq's industrial capacity before then. The physics of nuclear explosions is fairly well understood, but the engineering of warheads is a much more difficult matter."
Administration officials acknowledged that Iraq was pursuing nuclear arms. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, interviewed yesterday on NBC's "Meet the Press," said, "I think the evidence that's public . . . as well as information from intelligence sources, proves conclusively that he [Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein] is doing everything he can to acquire nuclear weapons."
Secretary of State James A. Baker III, in an interview on ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley," said Iraq was making "extraordinary efforts" to develop nuclear capability.
The large plants that would be needed to manufacture nuclear explosives would be impossible to conceal, nuclear engineers say, and would be easy targets for attacks like the Israeli air raid in 1981 that destroyed Iraq's nuclear breeder reactor at Tuwaitha.
Another British analyst said: "I really cannot imagine that Israel would leave standing an Iraqi gas-centrifuge uranium separation plant if one should appear in a satellite photograph or intelligence assessment."
A welter of reports and rumors that Iraq is close to beginning production of nuclear weapons has circulated in recent months.
One set of speculation centered on some highly enriched uranium fuel salvaged from the breeder reactor after the Israeli attack.
This fuel could be used to make one crude nuclear weapon relatively quickly, although it is regularly inspected by experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency to make sure it has not been diverted to military use. Several days ago Iraq invited the agency to conduct a new inspection.