The professional nitpickers are at it again, accusing President Bush of exaggerating Iraq's potential threat to world peace and safety.

Maybe the critics are right. Maybe. But when it comes to the potential for nuclear war or even just nuclear blackmail, surely it's better to err on the side of too much caution rather than too little.The latest carping started after Bush told American troops stationed in the Middle East that Iraq's Saddam Hussein may be close to acquiring nuclear weapons, adding:

"Those who would measure the timetable for Saddam Hussein's atomic weapons program in years may be underestimating the reality of the situation and the gravity of the threat."

In response, some news commentators were quick to retort that Bush's warning is at odds with assessments from various experts. The trouble, though, is that even these experts disagree, some saying Iraq is two years away from producing nuclear warheads, others insisting that the fateful day is as much as 10 years away.

How much better is the world supposed to feel, thinking that Iraq's nuclear timetable is to be measured in years rather than months?

All that can be said for sure is that Iraq is clearly trying to become a nuclear power. That much is clear from Iraq's well-known attempts to procure sophisticated furnaces and electronic switches needed for the development of nuclear weapons.

Another certainty is that the more help Iraq gets from the outside - such as Pakistan or China - the sooner it can be expected to join the nuclear club.

What about the possibility of a repeat performance from Israel, whose planes bombed an Iraqi nuclear production plant outside of Baghdad in 1981 and set back Iraqi's timetable for developing atomic weapons?

Don't count on that happening again. After the 1981 attack, Iraq abandoned the Baghdad site and started putting its nuclear facilities underground to prevent another air strike.

Likewise, it's hard to take much comfort even if Saddam withdraws his forces from Kuwait, which would not only enable but even impel the pullout of American and allied troops, too. With nuclear weapons at his command, what would prevent Saddam from returning to Kuwait? For that matter, what would keep him from overrunning the rest of the Arabian peninsula and controlling half of the world's oil supplies? And how much satisfaction can be taken from the prospect of that scenario taking place two years from now or even 10 years from now?

The bottom line is that the world can't draw an easy breath while there's the serious prospect of Iraq's acquiring a nuclear arsenal. The current quibbling over how long it might take Baghdad to get atomic weapons is beside the point.