WASHINGTON -- President Bush exaggerated the nuclear threat posed by Iraq when he cited Saddam Hussein's efforts to develop atomic weapons as a rationale for launching a military strike against him sooner rather than later, military experts say.
Two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a former CIA director and leading scientists argue that the nuclear materials available to Mr. Hussein are barely sufficient to produce one crude, nearly immobile bomb within the next year.
They maintained in testimony before a congressional committee yesterday and in individual interviews that the threat U.S. troops face from such weapons is not nearly so great as what they face from Iraq's much more sophisticated arsenal of chemical weapons or from Iraqi artillery.
"It's a pimple compared to what we faced with the Soviets," retired Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., former Joint Chiefs chairman, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Recent reports of near-term development are not exactly right -- they're exaggerated."
One theory is that a crude bomb could be used by retreating Iraqis to booby-trap Kuwait City, said these experts. But, they argued, that was not enough to justify a military strike or to accelerate one that might otherwise be delayed.
"I think Bush is attempting to make things clearer than the truth," said John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists. "It's pretty flimsy stuff to lead the country into war."
In Thanksgiving speeches to several gatherings of U.S. soldiers, sailors and Marines stationed in the Persian Gulf region, Mr. Bush warned repeatedly of delaying military action so long that President Hussein would be able to "multiply his weapons of mass destruction."
"We can sacrifice now, or we can pay an even stiffer price later," Mr. Bush said. "Those who would measure the timetable for Saddam's atomic program in years may be seriously underestimating the gravity of the threat."
White House officials say the reference was made as part of Mr. Bush's ongoing attempt to more fully explain to the American people what is at stake in the confrontation with Iraq over its seizure of Kuwait.
But James R. Schlesinger, a former CIA director and secretary of defense, noted the curious timing between Mr. Bush's first public use of the nuclear rationale and the appearance of a New York Times poll two days earlier that suggested the American public was more inclined to support a military strike for that reason than to protect oil or restore the government of Kuwait.
Before Mr. Bush's Thanksgiving speeches, senior administration officials had been talking about ways to contain the Iraqi nuclear threat by strengthening the international safeguards through the trade embargo
already in place.
"They're dealing with it now in typical campaign fashion," said Mr. Pike, who supports the notion of a speedy military strike against Iraq for other reasons. "It's become a Willie Horton line of political rhetoric."
Last week, inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency toured a storage plant and a fuel-producing plant at Iraq's invitation and announced that they had not found any evidence of atomic weapons development.
U.S. experts said the inspectors apparently checked a 27-pound mass of highly enriched uranium that Iraq salvaged from the Osirak nuclear reactor destroyed by an Israeli air attack in 1981.
With only 27 pounds known to be in its possession, Iraq would barely have enough fuel for a single nuclear device, said Mr. Schlesinger. He and other experts estimated that it would take five to 10 years for Iraq to develop a more complete nuclear arsenal.
"We think the International Atomic Energy Agency is wrong," White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said yesterday. "They only see what Iraq wants them to see."
But another White House official familiar with intelligence material supplied to Mr. Bush agreed that the "worst-case scenario" for the next year or so was that Iraq could create a single, clumsy weapon that could not be dropped from a plane or carried on a missile but might be used "to make a big mess."
Another former Joint Chiefs chairman, retired Air Force Gen. David C. Jones, told the Senate panel yesterday that if Iraq did succeed in making its single bomb, "it would have more political impact than a military impact. . . . I don't think we have to go in and destroy it."