Airstrikes may do little to curb Iraqi weapons Sites are uncertain

Hussein could rebuild facilities in months

December 17, 1998|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Iraq has no nuclear weapons and probably only modest quantities of chemical and biological arms, and yesterday's missile strikes had little chance of hitting specific weapons-making facilities, experts outside the U.S. administration said yesterday.

But Saddam Hussein's regime could rebuild its weapons programs in months, particularly if it manages to acquire nuclear material from an illicit supplier, they said.

"There may be suspect sites and sites formerly associated with weapons of mass destruction," said Spurgeon M. Keeny Jr., president of the Arms Control Association, an arms-control advocacy group in Washington. "But true nuclear, chemical or biological targets are hard to identify."

Keeny and other specialists said planners of the U.S.-British strikes faced a paradox: They were attacking Iraq because it is suspected of hiding weapons-related sites from United Nations inspectors. But Iraq's very defiance meant they did not know precisely where those sites were.

"My sense is that if we had specific intelligence about weapons ** of mass destruction, we would have gotten UNSCOM there already," said Michael Moodie, president of the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute and a former Bush administration official. "I'm not convinced that we have the intelligence to be that precise."

Intensive bombing during the Persian Gulf war in 1991 destroyed most of Baghdad's known weapons plants, particularly facilities that experts believed were close to producing nuclear bombs.

Since then, inspection teams from UNSCOM, the U.N. Special Commission, have overseen the destruction of many more weapons, including 48 Scud missiles, six launchers and 30 warheads designed for chemical and biological arms. Also destroyed were ingredients for payloads, including 480,000 tons chemical weapons agents, 38,537 filled and empty chemical shells and more than 11 tons of a growth medium used to produce biological agents such as anthrax and botulin toxin.

But U.N. inspectors say there is evidence that not all the weapons have been destroyed. UNSCOM Chairman Richard Butler said last month that he believed Hussein barred his inspectors because they were closing in on secret supplies of deadly VX nerve agent. Inspectors say Iraq may be hiding as many as 16 proscribed missiles, and a shipment of missile gyroscopes bound for Iraq was intercepted in 1995 in neighboring Jordan.

Since the war, Iraq has steadily rebuilt its conventional arsenal. Western military analysts estimate its troop strength today at about 400,000 and its air force at about 580 combat aircraft. Anti-aircraft missile batteries are in place.

David Albright, a nuclear arms expert who worked with UNSCOM from 1992 to 1997, said Hussein's decades-long drive to obtain nuclear weapons appears to be on hold.

"The program is dormant, but it could be reconstituted very quickly," said Albright, who now heads the Institute for Science and International Security. If Iraq managed to test a nuclear weapon, or to leak credible information that it possessed one, "it would radically alter their international political status."

Albright estimated that 10,000 Iraqis who previously worked in the nuclear program are still on hand, many assigned to other tasks.

He said that while the construction of small nuclear devices could be continuing covertly, plants to produce highly enriched uranium or plutonium are unlikely to go undetected and would take many months to build. But if the Iraqis were able to steal or buy such nuclear material from the former Soviet Union or other international sources, a nuclear warhead might be produced in "months or weeks," Albright said.

"The brain power for the most part is still there. And I'm sure they've squirreled away some equipment," Keeny said. "Once you've done it, it's a lot easier to do it again."

Chemical and especially biological weapons are far easier to hide, so it is difficult to be certain that Iraq does not have secret supplies. But Moodie said the quantities probably would be small.

"It would be more of a terror weapon than a military weapon," he said.

As an illustration of the difficulty of proving that a facility is used for making chemical weapons, Moodie cited the controversy over the U.S. missile attack in August on a pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan.

Journalists and nongovernment experts questioned whether the factory really was used to make or store chemical arms, as the Clinton administration insisted. That question has never been resolved, Moodie said, adding: "I think the consensus leans against its being a chemical weapons facility."

Pub Date: 12/17/98

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