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Boettcher: Iraqis possibly 3 years from bomb

CNN's Mike Boettcher via videophone

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(CNN) -- U.S. officials emphasized Wednesday that the discovery of bomb parts and documents in Baghdad was not a smoking gun that Iraq had a nuclear weapon -- but it was evidence Iraqis concealed plans to reconstitute their nuclear program as soon as the world was no longer looking.

In a talk with CNN anchor Lou Dobbs, Correspondent Mike Boettcher offers more on the story from an undisclosed location in the Middle East.

DOBBS: Now a lot of controversy has followed the discovery of ... [those] mobile labs or what appeared to be chemical agents, and a lot of controversy over the actual use and content of those elements. What more can you tell us about the apparent apparatus that would have been helpful to the nuclear weapons program?

BOETTCHER: Well, they were sample components for a gas centrifuge. Now, this is a piece of equipment that can enrich uranium and make it bomb grade. What is known now by the CIA and other U.S. government officials ... is that the Iraqis, No. 1, were way ahead in developing this program, could have put it together with the components they had and the information in about three years, according to top nuclear scientists.

On the other hand, the scientist [Mahdi Obeidi] who turned it over to them said that there was no program after '91, that he was ordered in 1991, and other top nuclear scientists, to take various components and kits, as they were called, with the various plans and diagrams for this centrifuge and hide them.

He hid it under a rose bush in a barrel in his garden, and there it stayed for 12 years, and there he lied about it for 12 years until Baghdad fell to coalition forces, and at that point he decided he wanted to cooperate with the United States, and he did.

DOBBS: This raises the question [of whether there are] other scientists perhaps with other pieces of equipment that would be relevant to a nuclear program, perhaps a biochemical program. Is there any indication from Obeidi or from your sources in the CIA that this is going to be a broader opening?

BOETTCHER: Well, in Obeidi's view, he believes it will be broader because he says other scientists are watching what happens to him. He says others are willing to come forward, but they want to see how the U.S. is going to treat him. Is he going to be tried as a war criminal, which it appears he won't be. Is he going to be held in custody?

On the other hand, will his family be given safety? Will he be taken somewhere where he can give information and then start a new life? He believes this is called the soft touch, and he believes this is the way to deal with Iraqi scientists. He believes since he has successfully turned over this information and left the country and is cooperating, that other scientists will follow suit.

He says when he went in 1991 to pick up that particular gas centrifuge kit, as he called it, there were three others there at the office he went to, and he doesn't know where those three others are, although he's given information to the U.S. about scientists that they may want to question about those other three kits.

DOBBS: Are there any other purpose for this material that Obeidi has turned over to the United States?

BOETTCHER: No, it's not dual use. He says precisely that this was to make a gas centrifuge to enrich uranium. It would have taken several dozen of them to enrich enough uranium in a period that would have taken about a year or so once they had that gas centrifuge built.

He believes that would have taken maybe another two years or so. So a total program of two to three and a half years. And he believes it was kept solely for the purpose of reconstituting the program once Saddam thought it was safe.

In terms of other programs, other weapons ... , biological or chemical, he says he does not have any information on that. And he says that the entire nuclear program was basically inactive, he believes, for the last 12 years, although he did reveal tonight when I spoke to him that in 2002 there may have been a parallel plan to conceptually bring back that gas centrifuge program, a plan to perhaps take this forward to its step when Saddam thought it was safe to try to build a bomb again.

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