The potential for Iraq to use some primitive form of nuclear weapon in the continuing war in the Persian Gulf has not been completely eliminated.
Prior to the conflict, Iraq did possess enough nuclear material to form the core of a nuclear device, even though Iraq is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.Iraq reportedly has nuclear facilities at Tuwaitha, a few miles southeast of Baghdad, and at Mosul and Erbil in northern Iraq close to the border with Turkey.
According to Russell Ruthen writing in the February 1991 issue of Scientific American, Iraq salvaged 12 kilograms of almost pure uranium from the 1981 Israeli attack on its nuclear reactor. It had additional uranium from a Soviet-supplied reactor.
Iraq's Al Qaqaa Military Research & Development Institute was making chemical explosives necessary for triggering a nuclear detonator. U.S. Customs Service officials in a sting operation nabbed three employees in March 1990 attempting to import into Iraq such triggering devices, known as krytrons or capacitors.
The material Iraq now possesses - about 25 kilograms of 90 percent pure uranium, can yield about 15 kilotons, equivalent to the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Iraq could make a crude atomic bomb if it has: enough uranium; the equipment needed to upgrade uranium to the necessary purity and enrichment; a triggering device and detonator; a delivery system.
Here are some worrying and unanswered questions about the status of Iraq's nuclear ability:
- Does Iraq have uranium?
Yes. According to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Brazil, Niger and Portugal sold Iraq hundreds of tons of uranium ore extract. Moreover, Iraq has been mining for uranium in its own northern mountains.
- Does Iraq have the necessary personnel and refinement equipment to process uranium into a fissionable grade explosive?
Probably. It has more advanced technicians and technology than Pakistan, which has been attempting to build weapons-grade uranium for over 10 years. In 1982, Iraq's military attempted to obtain plutonium from Italian arms smugglers. The deal aborted when the Italians could not produce sample plutonium for inspection.
- Does Iraq have fissionable uranium?
Yes. Iraq managed to salvage 12 kilograms of 93 percent pure uranium 235 after the 1981 Israeli attack on its nuclear facility built with French help.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center reported that companies in Germany, Switzerland and France reportedly sold technologies for building as centrifuges for refining uranium to Iraq for building the machinery necessary for upgrading uranium from about 70 percent to 90 percent purity. Several kilograms of uranium 235 - bomb grade - can be produced in a year from this sophisticated technology.
Polish engineers released by Iraq with other foreign hostages early in the crisis stated that a nuclear weapons gas conversion plant was indeed under way at the Al Qaim chemical plant.
- Does Iraq possess the krytron or capacitors necessary to trigger an explosive device for a nuclear bomb?
Uncertain. It could try to obtain them from Pakistan, which has a nascent nuclear weapons facility of its own. Smuggling could occur from Pakistan to Iraq through neighboring Iran.
- Does Iraq have the delivery system to carry an atomic bomb, if one exists before testing, to a target?
Yes. It still possesses scores of planes in underground bunkers and probably maintains a fair supply of Scud missiles in protective underground silos. Even if a Scud missile were destroyed in the air but close to the ground by a Patriot missile, an ensuing atomic blast would create havoc with radiation effects, and searing light and heat.
- Can Iraq's nuclear weapon capabilities be destroyed?
Not easily. Reports in the first week of the war indicated that such a threat had been eliminated. But Iraq should be able to hide either nuclear weapons, or their components once assembled, thus conceivably preventing complete destruction.
As the war with Iraq continues to rivet the attention of the world, it is becoming clearer that neither oil nor Kuwait's territorial sovereignty were the principal reasons for military engagement. We went to war "to defeat the unbridled ambitions of a ruthless gangster masquerading as a head of state who is bent on absolute hegemony in the Middle east," according to Howard Teicher writing in the Los Angeles Times (Jan. 20).
Saddam Hussein has lamentably shown that he is no respecter of human rights or human life, having invaded Iran, killed dissident Kurdish Iraqis with chemicals, raped and destroyed Kuwait and now attacked Israel and Saudi Arabia with weapons meant to kill and terrorize civilians.
Supposedly, Saddam claims, this was all meant to help the Palestinian cause. The nuclear capability will continue to be a wartime anxiety unless it, and he, are eliminated permanently.