UNITED NATIONS -- United Nations inspectors have discovered a complex of buildings that apparently served as the nerve center of President Saddam Hussein's covert nuclear weapons program but largely escaped allied attack during the Persian Gulf war.
In a report to the Security Council, U.N. inspectors sent to ferret out Mr. Hussein's nuclear plans said that on their most recent trip to Iraq they had found a top-secret document indicating that the hub of Iraq's weapons-development program was a scientific research installation called Al Atheer, about 40 miles south of Baghdad.
It was there, the report says, that Mr. Hussein planned "to design and produce a nuclear device," although Iraq has said the installation "had no nuclear connection."
Previous inspection teams decided that Al Atheer was probably intended for the production of components for a nuclear weapon.
U.S. and other allied intelligence agencies also apparently failed to spot the importance of this plant, officials say. It was only lightly bombed during the gulf war, during which about 15 percent of its buildings were hit. Many other suspected nuclear sites were almost destroyed.
The allies' failure to destroy the central nuclear installation in the air war against Iraq is a further indication that they underestimated the size of Iraq's nuclear program and overestimated the damage they had inflicted on it.
On Jan. 23, for instance, a week after the start of the air war, President Bush said, "Our pinpoint attacks have put Saddam out of the nuclear bomb-building business for a long time."
On different occasions in January, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the allied commander, said attacks had "destroyed all their nuclear-reactor facilities" and "neutralized their nuclear manufacturing capability."
The new report summarizes preliminary findings of the sixth nuclear-inspection visit that the Vienna, Austria-based International Atomic Energy Agency has made in Iraq under terms of the Security Council's cease-fire agreement with Baghdad.
The report is based on a partial examination of more than 25,000 secret Iraqi documents, which the inspectors finally managed to remove from the country last month after twice being expelled from the sites where they were collecting material.
The whole team then was detained for 96 hours in a Baghdad parking lot in Iraq's most serious confrontation with the Security Council since the end of the war.
The report says that the 44-man inspection team, which included U.S. and British designers of nuclear weapons, "obtained conclusive evidence that the government of Iraq had a program for developing an implosion-type nuclear weapon" code-named "Petrochemical Three."
Documents taken by the inspectors describe "nuclear weapons development experiments" involving, among other things, "neutron initiators, enriched uranium cores, reflectors, high explosive lenses and electronic firing sets."
One document says that Iraq successfully produced nuclear-weapons components out of natural uranium. But the Atomic Energy Agency inspectors still have not determined whether Iraq's ambitious uranium-enrichment program had produced enough nuclear explosive "for an actual explosive device" by the time it was brought to a standstill by the allied raids.