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A Clear, But Not Imminent Danger

Are Iraqi weapons of mass destruction a threat to the United States?

September 18, 2002

Are Iraqi weapons of mass destruction a threat to the United States?

Many well-meaning political figures in the United States have made the same mistake that U.S. Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) made. On August 18 on NBC's Meet the Press, the Senate Intelligence Committee member said:

"Our intelligence system has said that we know that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction — I believe including nuclear. There’s not one person on this panel who would tell you unequivocally that he doesn’t have the missile means now — or is nearly getting the missile means to deliver a weapon of mass destruction."

As a matter of fact, the opposite is the case. U.S. intelligence agencies do not believe that Iraq has a nuclear weapon — or that the country is near developing either a nuclear weapon or a long-range missile.

Much of the confusion stems from the now over-used phrase "weapons of mass destruction." It is important to remember that not all weapons are created equal. There is a great difference between a chemical artillery shell that could kill dozens of people — and a nuclear bomb that could kill a million.

Iraq almost certainly does not have nuclear weapons. But it almost certainly does have large numbers of chemical weapons — and some biological weapons or agents.

Moreover, it does not have any missiles or planes that could strike the United States from Iraqi territory. As a matter of fact, it has very few missiles that could deliver these weapons more than a few miles outside its borders.

The weapons in Iraq's arsenal are — and have been for over 20 years — a threat to Iraq's neighbors as well as its own people. But today Saddam has far fewer weapons — thanks to allied military operations and United Nations inspectors who destroyed most of his facilities, missiles and materials.

There is every reason to believe that new, coercive inspections — backed by military force — could finish the job of taking out Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Prior to the Gulf War, Iraq's secret nuclear program was substantial. In 1991, Iraq may have been only a few years away from producing enough highly-enriched uranium for a bomb.

However, in 1998 — after several years of inspections — Saddam was much further from this goal. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concluded that there were no indications that Iraq had achieved its objective of producing nuclear weapons.

Nor did it find that Iraq had produced more than a few grams of weapon-usable nuclear material — or had otherwise acquired such material.

The IAEA also reported that there were no indications that any physical capability remained in Iraq for the production of weapon-usable nuclear material of any practical significance. In fact, the agency had removed all weapon-usable nuclear material (that is, research reactor fuel) from Iraq.

Since then, Iraq may have secretly reconstructed some nuclear capabilities. Saddam may have a workable design for a weapon, but no official report claims that he yet has the material to put in it.

CIA officials told the U.S. Senate in March 2002 that Iraq, unconstrained, would need several years to produce enough material for a nuclear weapon. All the Bush Administration's recent speeches and reports have added nothing new to the world's understanding of Saddam's nuclear program.

At the same time, inspections by the United Nations revealed that Iraq had one of the most extensive chemical weapons capabilities in the developing world. Iraq produced over 200,000 chemical weapons beginning in 1980 — and used half of them in its eight-year war with Iran.

By the Gulf War, Iraq had produced sufficient quantities of so-called chemical precursors for almost 500 metric tons of the nerve agent VX — and hundreds of metric tons of tabun, sarin and mustard gas.

In addition, Iraq had weaponized mortar shells, artillery shells, grenades, aerial bombs and rockets for chemical use — and deployed 50 missiles equipped with potent chemical warheads.

After the Gulf War, UNSCOM destroyed more than 480,000 liters of chemical agents — and 1.8 million liters of chemical precursors in Iraq. Given the size of the Iraqi program, however, it is widely believed that significant quantities of chemical agents and precursors remain stored in secret depots.

Rough estimates conclude that Iraq may have retained up to 600 metric tons of such agents — including VX, mustard gas and sarin. There are thousands of possible chemical munitions still unaccounted for.

Until August 1990, the Iraqi biological weapon capability had been expanding and diversifying at a steady pace. UNSCOM reports indicated that Iraq had produced 8,500 liters of anthrax, 20,000 liters of botulinum, 2,200 liters of aflatoxin — and the biological agent ricin.

The Iraqi biological weapons program explored and developed a broad range of weapon delivery systems — including aerial bombs, rockets, missiles and spray tanks.

In December of 1990, Iraq began the large-scale weaponization of its biological agents that lasted through the end of the Gulf War. That program included more than 160 aerial bombs and 25 filled warheads for the 600-kilometer-range Al Hussein missiles.

UNSCOM remained concerned that Iraq may have retained a stock of biological weapons and related manufacturing capabilities as late as 1997.

In the absence of inspections, it is likely that Iraq retains stockpiles of anthrax, botulinum toxin and aflatoxin. There are numerous unconfirmed reports of Iraq's research into and possible production of other biological agents.

Most importantly, though, Iraq has limited means of delivering any of these weapons of mass destruction. For starters, Iraq has no capability to attack the United States from its own territory.

And it has only limited capability to attack neighboring countries by air. It is unlikely that any of Iraq's remaining airplanes could fly undetected out of the country — or survive long after detection.

UN resolutions limit Iraq to missiles with ranges under 150 kilometers. Still, Iraq may have hidden some Scud missiles with a range of 300-600 km. These, however, are likely to be poorly maintained.

Furthermore, under a worst-case analysis, U.S. intelligence agencies estimate that Iraq might be able to develop a intercontinental-range missile by 2015.

The agencies conclude that "for the next several years at least Iraq's ballistic missile initiatives will focus on reconstituting its pre-Gulf War capabilities to threaten regional targets and probably will not advance beyond MRBM (medium-range ballistic missile) systems."

Moreover, the CIA's Robert Walpole said, "Most agencies believe that Iraq is unlikely to test before 2015 any ICBMs that could threaten the United States, even if UN prohibitions were eliminated."

In conclusion, there is no evidence that Iraq has a nuclear weapon (or will soon have one) — unless Saddam is able to get fissile material from some other nation.

Iraq has chemical and biological weapons that would complicate any military actions. But it is not clear that these capabilities are rapidly increasing in the absence of UN inspections.

The greatest threat from an Iraqi weapon of mass destruction would be from the delivery of a biological agent, probably by non-missile means — that is, by truck or ship or possibly small aircraft.

However, it is difficult to construct a scenario in which Saddam, knowing the likely consequences, would attempt such an attack.

Until the Bush Administration presents some compelling new information, the global community can only arrive at this conclusion: It appears that Saddam's weapons, at least in the near term, would be most likely be used only if he is attacked — and feels he has nothing left to lose.