Author:Venter, Al

This crisis Iraq's nuclear weapons appears to have abated, for the moment. Although United States President Bill Clinton was left in no doubt that the world in general and the Arab world in particular did not want war with Iraq, the Americans are still cagey about where they intend to go from here. The issue, they say, is far from resolved. Al Venter reports from Washington D.C. on facts that contribute to America's sustained suspicions and anxieties and why those fears will not go away as long as Saddam Hussein remains in power:

This time world opinion prohibited American participation in UNSCOM's strip-search of Iraq for real or imagined stocks of weapons of mass destruction. However, President Clinton has stressed, the matter is far from closed. To understand what is happening today, it is essential to look at some serious past errors of judgement which almost allowed Saddam Hussein to develop the nuclear option. The implications for the Arab world are enormous, for it was, after all, to have been 'the Islamic Bomb'.

What the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm did for those who follow such events was to stir the recurrent nightmare of a major Israeli-Arab conflict involving nuclear weapons.

This scenario continues to haunt strategists on both sides of the Atlantic.

What we now accept is that it was a close-run thing. With the benefit of hindsight, the boffins know that while Iraq had encountered serious problems with the development of a nuclear weapon, Baghdad was roughly two years from producing the first Arab bomb using indigenous facilities.

If Saddam had taken a short cut (which is what Iran is currently suspected of, with plutonium and weapons' grade uranium bought on the Former Soviet Union [FSU] black market) the objective might have been achieved even sooner.

It was Saddam Hussein's intention, once it became clear that the invasion of Kuwait would be fiercely opposed, to take his safeguarded highly enriched uranium (HEU) -- covered by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) -- and work towards building a single atom bomb. Had he been successful, he might well have done it in a year.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) -- and by inference, the major world powers -- were aware that when coalition forces went in, Iraq had in stock, a total of almost 14 kgs of fresh, Russian-supplied, 80 per cent enriched uranium as well as 11.9 kgs of lightly irradiated 93 per cent uranium and almost half a kilo of 93 per cent HEU, the last two bought from France. All had been subject to IAEA scrutinies, which, according to Dr David Kay (chief inspector of the three early UN nuclear weapons inspections in post-Gulf War Iraq) had been very cleverly manipulated by Baghdad. The fact that Saddam was in possession of HEU did give him a certain leverage.

The Iraqis have since admitted that after the IAEA made their routine inspection of this material in November 1990 -- following the invasion of Kuwait (but before the Allies started bombing) -- they intended to divert all their HEU and further enrich a portion of it.

The intention was to present the world with a fait accompli: that Iraq had its bomb. In which case, informed observers say, Saddam Hussein might have exercised one of two options: He could have test fired his bomb in the desert at a site to be built near the Saudi border. This would have demonstrated to the world that Iraq had a nuclear capability and thus, possibly, brought about a stalemate in the Kuwaiti issue with his forces still ensconced at the head of the Gulf. As it was, he was preempted by the invasion.

Alternatively, he might have considered trying to get such a bomb to Israel, possibly by boat, for detonation...

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