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Defense official: Iraq could have nuclear weapon within year

By Barbara Starr
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Iraq could have a workable nuclear device within one year, if it could find a means to acquire fissile material, a senior U.S. defense official said today.

Intelligence officials say so far they do not believe Iraq has such material, but the defense official said it could not be definitively ruled out. Getting fissile material is a "key impediment," the official said.

Without a source of fissile material, Iraq would still be years away from a nuclear weapon, according to Bush administration assessments.

However, the defense official also said that Iraq has a workable nuclear weapons design for a device with a core of 15 to 18 kilograms of highly enriched uranium.

All of this underscores the conflicting and competing views within the intelligence community about the immediacy of the risk posed by Iraq's efforts to get nuclear weapons.

The CIA is writing a new, unclassified assessment on Iraq's nuclear program that is expected to be submitted to Congress detailing these latest views including the one year estimate. But at the same time, officials continue to underscore how difficult it would be for Iraq to obtain such material.

The defense official said Iraq never abandoned its "aggressive procurement" attempts to develop a nuclear weapons infrastructure since Operation Desert Storm. As evidence he cited that Iraq has retained a team of nuclear scientists, nuclear documentation, and "some dual-use manufacturing infrastructure." Still it is largely believed that Iraq does not have other key components such as initiators.

A recent report from the International Institute for Strategic Studies said Iraq does not have the facilities to produce fissile materials and that it would take several years and "extensive foreign assistance" to build production facilities. IISS said Iraq could develop a weapon within months if it had the fissile material.

The defense official also said Iraq is working on a missile that could hit targets 1500 kilometers away, in violation of U.N. resolutions, and that it could be ready by the middle of the decade.




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