Posted Sept. 30, 2002
(Issue dated Oct. 15, 2002)
Tables: Secret Nuclear transfers
Saddam's European helpers
(London) - Recent intelligence information revealing
dramatic progress in Iraq's nuclear-weapons program has given a new
urgency to U.S. and British efforts to build international support
for war with Iraq, according to Iraqi opposition leaders interviewed
by Insight in London.
The information, from recent defectors and other sources working with the broad-based Iraqi National Congress (INC), indicates that Baghdad has made "a recent breakthrough" in production of the fissile material needed to produce the bomb. It was buttressed on Sept. 24 when the British government released an "unprecedented" white paper based in part on classified intelligence information on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs. As U.N. inspectors ultimately discovered after several years of investigations in Iraq, the lack of nuclear-weapons materials was the only obstacle that blocked Iraq from joining the nuclear club before the Persian Gulf War in 1991. It remains so today.
The warnings from the opposition INC coincide with new assessments of Iraqi weapons programs from independent think tanks. "If Iraq were to acquire material from another country, it is possible that it could assemble a nuclear weapon in months," the Carnegie Endowment in Washington concluded in a recent report.
Former Clinton national-security official Gary Samore is more circumspect in a just completed "net assessment" of Iraq's weapons programs for the International Institute for Strategic Affairs in London. While he agrees that Iraq rapidly could assemble a weapon with fissile material from abroad, he doubts Iraq can produce special nuclear material on its own. "That will take much longer, with a relatively higher risk of detection than for chemical- or biological-weapons production," he tells Insight.
But the think tanks also admit that they are just guessing. For the last four years there have been no international weapons inspectors in Baghdad. The only hard information on Iraqi weapons programs has come from Iraqi defectors and from U.S. national-technical means, including spy satellites and overflights of Iraq by combat air patrols. The U.S. intelligence community has all but admitted publicly that it has no human sources in Iraq.
"We know that Saddam Hussein pursued weapons of mass murder even when inspectors were in the country," President George W. Bush reminded the United Nations on Sept. 12. "Are we to assume that he stopped when they left?" To credit this regime's good faith is "to bet the lives of millions and the peace of the world in a reckless gamble."
A former senior Iraqi intelligence officer tells Insight that information obtained by the INC during the last few months indicates "Iraq has made significant progress recently in uranium enrichment." That conclusion is based on Iraqi purchases of specialized magnets from Germany and aluminum tubes for enrichment centrifuges from South Africa, as well as firsthand reports from defectors and sources in place who have visited new clandestine nuclear- and biological-weapons production sites during the last 18 months.
Among those clandestine sites are several new uranium-enrichment plants, INC says. "Iraq is no longer using large, easy-to-spot facilities, but small-scale production plants that fit in small areas," a senior INC official says. According to Insight sources, Iraqi engineers are miniaturizing the bomb design to make it fit onto a missile, using modeling software and fast new computers recently imported through Dubai, and actively enriching uranium using centrifuges and gaseous-diffusion membranes.
"Yes, there is a new urgency," says Ahmed Chalabi, a member of the six-man INC leadership committee in London. "We see an acceleration of these programs that shows Saddam is hell-bent on acquiring fissile material not just to build one bomb, but to have a stockpile of weapons," he tells Insight.
The Iraqi regime is turning increasingly to South Africa to procure nuclear materials and forbidden equipment needed for its weapons programs, INC sources tell Insight. A top Iraqi intelligence official, Nadhim Jabouri, has been dispatched to the Iraqi embassy in Johannesburg to handle contacts with South African nuclear engineers. He also is in touch with Armscor, the state armaments directorate (also known as Denel), which supplied Iraq with advanced 155 mm howitzers during the Iran-Iraq war.
To grease the skids and arrange travel documents, Iraqi procurement agents operating in Amman, Jordan, go through the first secretary of the South African embassy, Shoeman du Plessis. The willingness of the South African government to sell nuclear material and weapons to Iraq, and their fear of getting caught, could explain the virulent outburst by former South African president Nelson Mandela, who told Newsweek recently that the U.S. ó not Saddam Hussein ó presents "a threat to world peace."
The credibility of the INC information was given a new boost in a White House report issued to buttress the president's U.N. speech. The section on Iraqi weapons programs began by citing Adnan Saeed al-Haideri, an Iraqi specialist who visited scores of clandestine weapons sites before defecting to the INC in November 2001. Al-Haideri had become Iraq's top authority in specialized epoxies used to seal minute cracks in concrete structures and clean rooms to prevent leaks that could give away their location. His skills made him an essential partner of Iraq's Special Security Organization, which used him to hide mini-production labs and storage facilities in private houses and other sites across Iraq.
When the CIA debriefed him in December 2001, al-Haideri identified 300 separate clandestine sites used by Iraq to hide biological and chemical weapons and nuclear materials. Some of the equipment was hidden in lead containers stored in fake wells lined with concrete. Al-Haideri said he was called in to seal cracks in the concrete because the Iraqis feared U.S. surveillance satellites would pick up the slightest radioactive emissions.
Al-Haideri's access to Iraq's best-kept secrets provided the United States with a "motherlode of intelligence," one source familiar with his debriefing tells Insight. Iraq is so worried about what he told the CIA that a senior official took reporters in early August to a Baghdad site he claimed al-Haideri had identified as a biological-weapons production plant. Instead, the official claimed, it was a "livestock vaccination laboratory." Reporters were shown abandoned monitoring cameras installed by the United Nations. Dust-covered equipment and bottles littered the floor. Pointing to this "evidence," their Iraqi escort claimed that al-Haideri "is lying to the CIA" and was "motivated by our enemies."
Early this spring, intelligence analysts in Washington monitoring the progress of Iraq's nuclear-weapons programs were stunned when they discovered plans by a known Iraqi procurement front, al-Wasel & Babel, to purchase large quantities of special aluminum tubes for uranium-enrichment centrifuges. The procurement had been spread over a 14-month period, beginning in mid-2001.
The involvement of al-Wasel & Babel set off alarm bells. "This is a known front for the Iraqi intelligence services and their parallel procurement network controlled by Saddam Hussein's son Qusay," the former intelligence officer says. Some shipments quietly were intercepted en route to Iraq, but a large number of the tubes slipped through, according to intelligence sources. Using these special aluminum tubes, Iraq now is believed to be operating a miniature uranium-enrichment "cascade" at a clandestine location, hermetically sealed to prevent telltale emissions.
Al-Wasel & Babel is a joint venture between the Lootah group in Dubai and the Rawame family, an Iraqi clan with close ties to Saddam Hussein, that operates primarily out of Jordan. Their agent in Baghdad, Jamil al Hajaj, hand-delivers tasking messages from the regime to procurement agents operating outside of Iraq. Al-Wasel & Babel previously has been identified by U.S. intelligence as a conduit for clandestine purchases of Japanese fiber-optic cable through China. When Insight called the group's commercial manager in the city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, a Pakistani named Sabr Montaz al-Qoreishi, we were told that al-Hajaj was arriving from Baghdad on Sept. 14.
Al Wasel & Babel is registered with the United Nations as a legitimate partner in oil-for-food deals and reportedly has handled close to $900 million of Iraqi government contracts. Money from Iraq's blocked account with the Banque Nationale de Paris (BNP) is routed to al-Wasel's account (No. 104 481 4976) at the al-Riggah branch of the Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank in Dubai, contractual documents obtained by Insight show.
The former intelligence officer, who now works with the INC, provided details of the dual networks Iraq has set up to get around the U.N. trade restrictions. For five years he personally ran a procurement network based in Dubai for the Special Security Organization, the elite of Saddam's vast intelligence apparatus in charge of overseas procurement and with hiding key equipment and material for Saddam's weapons programs. He was arrested by the regime in 1998, viciously tortured, then given an injection and dumped on the street. Bleeding from his nose, mouth and stomach, he managed to escape to Northern Iraq and ultimately to Turkey, where human-rights workers treated him successfully for thallium poisoning, a favorite method of the regime for executing its enemies.
Saddam's thuggish older son, Uday, controls the first network. Its primary purpose is to flood the U.N. sanctions committee with export requests to trigger the release of funds from the escrow account with the BNP in New York City where since 1991 the proceeds from Iraq's oil revenues have been deposited. In some cases, the former officer said, Uday uses cutouts and middlemen to sign fictitious contracts with European companies for goods such as food and medicine that routinely are approved by the United Nations. "Once the contracts are approved, the money is released from the escrow account," he says. "Iraq then pays the company up to 40 percent for the paperwork, and lets them keep the goods. Saddam desperately needs the 60 percent in cash for forbidden goods and could care less about food or medicine."
French exporters, interviewed by Insight, explained yet another finesse of Saddam's commercial network. They said they had been approached by an Iraqi front company known as ALIA, based in the Garden district of Amman, Jordan. "Uday uses ALIA to squeeze a 10 percent commission from exporters that gets kicked back to the regime," an exporter tells Insight. Large companies such as Renault Vehicules Industriels, Schneider Electric SA and Dow Agrosciences have used ALIA to sell several hundred million dollars worth of U.N.-approved goods to Iraq, according to export documents obtained by Insight. The Iraqi purchases included off-road vehicles, large quantities of specialized pumps and chillers that could be used for uranium enrichment, 2,000-liter and 5,000-liter reactor vessels needed to produce chemical weapons and chemicals for pesticides. All ostensibly were sold for civilian purposes and approved by the U.N. sanctions committee in New York.
In France, ALIA also is known as SOFRAG ALIA Development France, according to the documents. It applied to the United Nations for permission to export $1 million worth of oil-well logging equipment to Iraq under an approved program to rebuild Iraqi oil fields. Such equipment is particularly sensitive because it includes neutron generators which U.N. weapons inspectors discovered were key components in the crude gun-implosion nuclear device Iraq had designed and tested before the 1991 gulf war.
The availability of dual-use equipment such as neutron generators provides an additional sense of urgency to the United States and Britain in making the case for war against Iraq. This is how Saddam Hussein built his war machine in the 1980s and early 1990s, arms experts and analysts who track the arms industries in developing countries agree. And yet, instead of tightening export controls on such sales, the United Nations dramatically loosened them in May after intense lobbying from France, Germany, China and Russia convinced the State Department to go along.
"Before the new rules," one French exporter of agricultural equipment tells Insight, "it took us anywhere between 12 and 18 months to get a contract approved by the U.N. sanctions committee. Now they are required to give us an answer within 10 days, and failure to reply means the contract is automatically approved."
Particularly worrying is the loosening of restrictions on high-tech equipment. Goods now available for export to Iraq under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1409, which was adopted in May, include a broad range of equipment with clear military applications ó from agricultural sprayers that can be used to disperse biological weapons, to fiber optics and telecommunications hardware that have been used by the Iraqi military to improve and harden its integrated air-defense network.
Until recently, state-owned Chinese companies were the main suppliers of fiber-optics gear to Baghdad [see "Rogues Lending Hand to Saddam," Feb. 18]. But new documents obtained by Insight show that Europe's premier technology giants now are getting into the act. Siemens of Germany and Alcatel of France have racked up sales worth several hundred million dollars that recently were approved by the U.N. sanctions committee, directly and through overseas subsidiaries. Both companies were partners of Iraq's Ministry of Industry and Military Industrialization before the 1991 gulf war. Their return to Iraq, albeit under the auspices of providing civilian telecommunications equipment, gives Baghdad access to the most advanced technology currently available in the West.
Now, Saddam has agreed to the return of U.N. arms inspectors, but it will take them months to develop the cadres and tradecraft to counter Iraqi deception, Samore believes. Chief arms inspector Hans Blix "is operating with a skeletal staff because he has insisted that experts who come to work for him quit their government jobs to reassure Iraq that they won't engage in intelligence collection." In his previous role as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Blix regularly certified that Iraq was engaged in purely civilian nuclear research, thus allowing Saddam to import massive amounts of nuclear technology, which was used to develop nuclear weapons.
But the U.N. sanctions have become irrelevant for another reason. Since 1999 there has been no monitoring of trade across the international land borders with Iraq. "King Abdallah [of Jordan] threw Lloyds of London out of the port of Aqaba, where they were supposed to monitor Iraqi imports," the former Iraqi intelligence officer says. "There are regular convoys of trucks to Baghdad from Jordan, and now a direct rail link from Syria carrying military spare parts and production gear, including equipment needed in Iraq's nuclear-weapons plants."
In June, Iraq brought in by rail from the Syrian port of Tartous a shipment of 60 military jet engines to upgrade aging MiG-21 fighters, the source says. More recently, Iraq purchased four Kolchuga air-defense missile batteries from Ukraine and brought them in through Syria. In exchange for its aid, Iraq is supplying Syria with 250,000 barrels of oil per day through the reopened Banias pipeline. Syria uses the Iraqi oil for its domestic consumption, freeing up oil for its own small-scale production to earn hard currency on the export market.
In Europe, meanwhile, reaction to Bush's U.N. speech was mixed, with many editorialists claiming the president had "not made the case" for war with Iraq. But, behind the scenes, well-informed sources tell Insight that the fix is in, the result of intensive backroom bargaining during the last six months by administration envoys. One well-informed businessman close to French President Jacques Chirac believes that the French rejection of the U.S.-U.K. war plans is just for show. "What Chirac is really afraid of is losing face," the businessman tells Insight. "Chirac fears that the Franco-German alliance in Europe is being outmaneuvered by Britain and its new allies, Italy and Spain. When push comes to shove, he will sacrifice the French companies now doing business in Iraq and throw in his lot with the United States."
Samore has made four trips to Moscow in recent months and believes that securing Russian acquiescence will be the most difficult. "[Russian President Vladimir] Putin is probably inclined to go along with Bush at the U.N.," Samore believes. "But people in the Russian security and foreign-policy establishment are resentful of the concessions he's already made to Washington, and don't want to lend legitimacy to a U.S. effort to install a pro-U.S. government in Baghdad. It could get ugly."
Iraqi opposition leaders, who also have had quiet discussions with top Russian officials in recent months, believe Moscow's main concern is getting some return on the $15 billion Iraq owes the former Soviet Union for arms purchases and industrial assistance in the 1980s. "I think the Russians are straightforward and keep their word," said one opposition source. "We don't expect any problem with them."
Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight magazine.
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Added to this, the British report says intelligence "has confirmed that Iraq wants to extend the range of its missile systems to more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles), enabling it to threaten other regional neighbors," and can now produce biological-warfare agents using "mobile laboratories."
In presenting the Joint Intelligence Committee assessment ó the first of its kind to be released to the public ó Prime Minister Tony Blair emphasized that "Iraq is preparing plans to conceal evidence of these weapons, including documents, from renewed inspections," explaining the cynicism with which Saddam's promises to allow U.N. weapons inspectors back into Iraq has been greeted in Washington and London. ó KRT
Source: U.N. sanctions committee
Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight.
email the author