Iraq nuclear dilemma exposed
LONDON, England (CNN) -- Iraq could assemble a nuclear weapon in months if it had foreign help, a report into Baghdad's arms programmes has concluded.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) also says Iraq could have been stockpiling chemical and biological weapons since 1998 when U.N. inspectors left the country and were refused permission to return.
The report, published on Monday, outlines the dilemma Iraqi President Saddam Hussein poses for the international community: "Wait and the threat will grow. Strike and the threat may be used."
The IISS, an independent international research group that examines political, economic and military trends, concludes: "War, sanctions and inspections have reversed and retarded but not eliminated Iraq's nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and long-range missile capacities, nor removed Baghdad's enduring interest in developing these capabilities."
CNN Senior International Correspondent Walter Rodgers said the IISS estimates of Iraq's capabilities are generally lower than that of some Israeli generals in the intelligence divisions.
"It would seem the IISS is not jumping on the Bush administration bandwagon. They do not appear to be making a compelling case for immediate war," Rodgers said.
In a news conference in which the report was released, IISS Director John Chipman said: "We prefer not to make heroic assumptions about Iraq's capabilities."
The report's author, Gary Samore, a senior fellow for non-proliferation at the IISS, told CNN in an interview: "The argument in favour of taking action now, whether it's to compel Baghdad to accept inspectors or to use military force to change the regime, is that it's better to act when (Iraq's) capabilities are still short of reaching their ultimate objective.
"If you wait, you run the risk that the Iraqis will get further along, perhaps even acquire a nuclear weapon, and that will make it much more difficult to pressure Baghdad or to prevent them from taking actions in the region that would jeopardise U.S. interests." (Full story)
U.S. President George W. Bush is due to address the United Nations on Thursday to spell out why he believes military action is necessary.
The London-based IISS, founded in 1958 and now with offices in Washington and Singapore, says Iraq could "probably assemble" nuclear weapons in months if Saddam Hussein could get fissile material from foreign sources but that Iraq does not have the facilities to make enough material for a nuclear weapon itself.
Iraq would need several years and "extensive foreign assistance" to build the necessary factories, the report concludes.
"There is a nuclear wildcard. ... Iraq could produce a nuclear weapon on fairly short notice if it was somehow able to acquire sufficient nuclear material from a foreign source, but there is no evidence that Iraq has done so," the report said.
The report also assesses Iraq's biological, chemical and ballistic missile capability. It estimates that Iraq retained "perhaps thousands of litres of anthrax" from before the Gulf War.
Saddam could resume making biological weapons within weeks and could have produced thousands of litres of anthrax, botulinum toxin and other agents since weapons inspections ended in 1998, it says.
On chemical weapons the report says Saddam probably has a few hundred tonnes of mustard gas from before the Gulf War as well as "precursors" for a few hundred tonnes of sarin and perhaps the same amount of VX.
Saddam could resume making chemical weapons in months and could have made hundreds of tonnes of mustard and nerve gases since 1998, the report adds.
Saddam has probably about 12 al-Hussein missiles, with a range of 650km, but would need several years and much foreign aid to build long-range missiles, according to the IISS.
The report came as former U.N. arms inspector Scott Ritter continued a visit to Baghdad having told the Iraqi National Assembly on Sunday that the U.S. "seems to be on the verge of making a historical mistake" in calling for a regime change. (Full story)
Ritter, an American and a critic of Washington's threat of military action, is visiting the Iraqi capital as a private citizen. He looked for weapons in Iraq from 1991 until 1998, when he was recalled to the U.S. two days before a military attack on Iraq.
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