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A Big Threat 

A former weapons inspector supervisor says now is the time to act

Wednesday, Sep 18 2002
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LAST WEEK THE INTERNATIONAL INSTITUTE FOR Strategic Studies (IISS), a London-based think tank, released its dossier, "Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction: A Net Assessment." The report reviews what is known about Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs -- past, present and future. The evidence is, at times, scant and sketchy -- and this has led both those who support and those who oppose a war on Iraq to claim the report as proof of their position. And although the institute purposely avoids commenting on whether Saddam Hussein's arsenal is a reason to go to war, one thing it makes abundantly clear is that Iraq is determined to keep its weapons-of-mass-destruction programs alive.

Colonel Terence Taylor, one of the principal authors of the study, left the British Ministry of Defense in 1992, after serving in the Gulf War. He was appointed United Nations commissioner on the Special Commission on Iraq (United Nations Special Commission), and it was his job to oversee the weapons inspections that were part of the cease-fire agreement ending the 1991 war. The inspections ended in a standoff in 1998. By then, Taylor was at IISS. His last assignment for the U.N. was as a chief inspector in Iraq in 1997. He resigned then, believing the inspections had become fruitless. The Weekly's GREG GOLDIN interviewed Taylor by telephone in Washington, D.C.

L.A. WEEKLY: Does Iraq have weapons of mass destruction and, if so, are they a direct threat to the United States?

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TERENCE TAYLOR: Yes, and to U.S. interests. I don't think that they can deliver a missile onto the continental United States. But we are talking about a government, a regime -- a tyranny, in effect -- in Iraq, which has substantial nuclear, biological, chemical and missile programs which can destabilize the region. We've got a regime whose strategic objectives are unchanged, which is intent on advancing nuclear weapons and other weapons-of-mass-destruction programs, and looking for the chance to expand them and build them up for regional domination and to challenge the West and, of course, Israel, and to be a leader of the Arab world. Do we want this brutal tyranny to be running that part of the world? No. We don't wait until he's got nuclear weapons which are actually a real threat. Some people argue, "Well, he's never used them, so what's the point?" That's not what he's up there for. He's a rational person. He's using them for leverage, regional dominance.

 

What specifically do we know about Iraq's nuclear-weapons program?

Certainly, Iraq has a nuclear-weapons program. From all the evidence we've marshaled together, we've concluded that it's unlikely -- not impossible -- that Iraq has been able to produce over the past 10 years sufficient highly enriched uranium to make usable nuclear weapons. If these weapons-of-mass-destruction programs continue, if we don't stop the Iraqis now, they could have them at some time in the future -- that is to say, usable nuclear weapons.

 

Scott Ritter, another former UNSCOM official, has been widely quoted, most recently from Baghdad, saying that according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, by 1998 "Iraq had no nuclear-weapons capability, none whatsoever, zero."

If Scott Ritter is talking about Iraq having no facilities for enrichment of uranium -- which is the key to bomb making -- that is correct. Their uranium-enrichment plants for uranium 235 were largely dismantled after the Gulf War, and with the inspectors there, it was very difficult for them to set up a system again. We had environmental monitoring going on, so it would be very hard for them to do that. But there was no way to know -- and we never knew -- any detail about bomb components. All the other bits of the bomb -- the firing circuits, explosive lenses, timing devices and all this other stuff -- we know for sure they were doing. They wouldn't spend 20 years on a nuclear-weapons program without manufacturing the components. We're convinced they went ahead with that. When I was on the commission, we always worried about that because we knew we could never find it.

 

So Iraq could be much further along than Ritter asserts?

We just don't know what's been happening since 1998. We think it's unlikely that by now they would have set up any substantial uranium 235 enrichment facilities. But they still have all the capability. They have very good designers, engineers and scientists. They can make all the bomb components. All they need is that fissile material, the U-235. If they get their hands on enriched uranium, maybe from outside Iraq, already made by somebody else, then it would only take them a few months to put a bomb together that would work. That would be alarming. That is the pessimistic, worst-case scenario.

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