WASHINGTON -- Iraq's arsenal may now include an explosive device that scatters radiological material, posing both a psychological and an environmental danger, U.S. officials said yesterday.
Experts say such a device, if it exists, would be more a terror
weapon than a serious military threat since it would be unlikely to release life-threatening amounts of radiation.
But it could have a psychological impact on potential victims and produce what one U.S. official called "a cleanup mess."
The weapon would use a high explosive to scatter radiological material. It is not to be confused with a nuclear device, which explodes energy released from a chain reaction, causing tremendous destruction.
One U.S. official who cast doubt on the existence of the weapon said the radiological material would be very hazardous to handle during assembly. Such a device, he suggested, could end up killing more Iraqis than anyone else.
The Washington Times reported yesterday that the radiological device could be among the "surprises" cited Sunday in Iraqi press reports.
A U.S. official knowledgeable of Iraqi weapons development said it was "possible" that Iraq had developed such a weapon.
Leonard Spector, a weaponry expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, referring to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, agreed that "this could be his surprise," but he said the information at this point was speculative.
He and government officials agreed, however, that even if Iraq had developed such a weapon, it would not pose a militarily significant threat to U.S. and allied forces.
Using its known quantities of radiological material, Iraqis could marry the material to a high-explosive device. When exploded, the device would release the material into the air, contaminating the surrounding area and exposing victims to radiation.
Given widespread fears about radiation, it could be used by Iraq as a "terror weapon," Mr. Spector said, but it "wouldn't be life-threatening instantaneously." A government official said the explosive device itself could pose a more immediate threat to human beings than would the radiation.