Posted Sept. 30, 2002
(Issue dated Oct. 15, 2002)
Tables: SecretNuclear transfers
Saddam's European helpers
(London) - Recent intelligence information revealingdramatic progress in Iraq's nuclear-weapons program has given a newurgency to U.S. and British efforts to build international supportfor war with Iraq, according to Iraqi opposition leaders interviewedby Insight in London.
The information, from recent defectors and other sources working withthe broad-based Iraqi National Congress (INC), indicates that Baghdadhas made "a recent breakthrough" in production of the fissilematerial needed to produce the bomb. It was buttressed on Sept. 24when the British government released an "unprecedented" white paperbased in part on classified intelligence information on Iraq'sweapons of mass destruction programs. As U.N. inspectors ultimatelydiscovered after several years of investigations in Iraq, the lack ofnuclear-weapons materials was the only obstacle that blocked Iraqfrom joining the nuclear club before the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Itremains so today.
The warnings from the opposition INC coincide with new assessments ofIraqi weapons programs from independent think tanks. "If Iraq were toacquire material from another country, it is possible that it couldassemble a nuclear weapon in months," the Carnegie Endowment inWashington concluded in a recent report.
Former Clinton national-security official Gary Samore is morecircumspect in a just completed "net assessment" of Iraq's weaponsprograms for the International Institute for Strategic Affairs inLondon. While he agrees that Iraq rapidly could assemble a weaponwith fissile material from abroad, he doubts Iraq can produce specialnuclear material on its own. "That will take much longer, with arelatively higher risk of detection than for chemical- orbiological-weapons production," he tells Insight.
But the think tanks also admit that they are just guessing. For thelast four years there have been no international weapons inspectorsin Baghdad. The only hard information on Iraqi weapons programs hascome from Iraqi defectors and from U.S. national-technical means,including spy satellites and overflights of Iraq by combat airpatrols. The U.S. intelligence community has all but admittedpublicly that it has no human sources in Iraq.
"We know that Saddam Hussein pursued weapons of mass murder even wheninspectors were in the country," President George W. Bush remindedthe United Nations on Sept. 12. "Are we to assume that he stoppedwhen they left?" To credit this regime's good faith is "to bet thelives of millions and the peace of the world in a recklessgamble."
A former senior Iraqi intelligence officer tells Insight thatinformation 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 magnetsfrom Germany and aluminum tubes for enrichment centrifuges from SouthAfrica, as well as firsthand reports from defectors and sources inplace who have visited new clandestine nuclear- andbiological-weapons production sites during the last 18 months.
Among those clandestine sites are several new uranium-enrichmentplants, INC says. "Iraq is no longer using large, easy-to-spotfacilities, but small-scale production plants that fit in smallareas," a senior INC official says. According to Insight sources,Iraqi engineers are miniaturizing the bomb design to make it fit ontoa missile, using modeling software and fast new computers recentlyimported through Dubai, and actively enriching uranium usingcentrifuges and gaseous-diffusion membranes.
"Yes, there is a new urgency," says Ahmed Chalabi, a member of thesix-man INC leadership committee in London. "We see an accelerationof these programs that shows Saddam is hell-bent on acquiring fissilematerial not just to build one bomb, but to have a stockpile ofweapons," he tells Insight.
The Iraqi regime is turning increasingly to South Africa to procurenuclear materials and forbidden equipment needed for its weaponsprograms, INC sources tell Insight. A top Iraqi intelligenceofficial, Nadhim Jabouri, has been dispatched to the Iraqi embassy inJohannesburg 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 mmhowitzers during the Iran-Iraq war.
To grease the skids and arrange travel documents, Iraqi procurementagents operating in Amman, Jordan, go through the first secretary ofthe South African embassy, Shoeman du Plessis. The willingness of theSouth African government to sell nuclear material and weapons toIraq, and their fear of getting caught, could explain the virulentoutburst by former South African president Nelson Mandela, who toldNewsweek recently that the U.S. ó not Saddam Hussein ópresents "a threat to world peace."
The credibility of the INC information was given a new boost in aWhite House report issued to buttress the president's U.N. speech.The section on Iraqi weapons programs began by citing Adnan Saeedal-Haideri, an Iraqi specialist who visited scores of clandestineweapons sites before defecting to the INC in November 2001.Al-Haideri had become Iraq's top authority in specialized epoxiesused to seal minute cracks in concrete structures and clean rooms toprevent leaks that could give away their location. His skills madehim an essential partner of Iraq's Special Security Organization,which used him to hide mini-production labs and storage facilities inprivate houses and other sites across Iraq.
When the CIA debriefed him in December 2001, al-Haideri identified300 separate clandestine sites used by Iraq to hide biological andchemical weapons and nuclear materials. Some of the equipment washidden in lead containers stored in fake wells lined with concrete.Al-Haideri said he was called in to seal cracks in the concretebecause the Iraqis feared U.S. surveillance satellites would pick upthe slightest radioactive emissions.
Al-Haideri's access to Iraq's best-kept secrets provided the UnitedStates with a "motherlode of intelligence," one source familiar withhis debriefing tells Insight. Iraq is so worried about what he toldthe CIA that a senior official took reporters in early August to aBaghdad site he claimed al-Haideri had identified as abiological-weapons production plant. Instead, the official claimed,it was a "livestock vaccination laboratory." Reporters were shownabandoned monitoring cameras installed by the United Nations.Dust-covered equipment and bottles littered the floor. Pointing tothis "evidence," their Iraqi escort claimed that al-Haideri "is lyingto the CIA" and was "motivated by our enemies."
Early this spring, intelligence analysts in Washington monitoring theprogress of Iraq's nuclear-weapons programs were stunned when theydiscovered plans by a known Iraqi procurement front, al-Wasel &Babel, to purchase large quantities of special aluminum tubes foruranium-enrichment centrifuges. The procurement had been spread overa 14-month period, beginning in mid-2001.
The involvement of al-Wasel & Babel set off alarm bells. "This isa known front for the Iraqi intelligence services and their parallelprocurement network controlled by Saddam Hussein's son Qusay," theformer intelligence officer says. Some shipments quietly wereintercepted en route to Iraq, but a large number of the tubes slippedthrough, according to intelligence sources. Using these specialaluminum tubes, Iraq now is believed to be operating a miniatureuranium-enrichment "cascade" at a clandestine location, hermeticallysealed to prevent telltale emissions.
Al-Wasel & Babel is a joint venture between the Lootah group inDubai and the Rawame family, an Iraqi clan with close ties to SaddamHussein, that operates primarily out of Jordan. Their agent inBaghdad, Jamil al Hajaj, hand-delivers tasking messages from theregime to procurement agents operating outside of Iraq. Al-Wasel& Babel previously has been identified by U.S. intelligence as aconduit for clandestine purchases of Japanese fiber-optic cablethrough China. When Insight called the group's commercial manager inthe city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, a Pakistani named SabrMontaz al-Qoreishi, we were told that al-Hajaj was arriving fromBaghdad on Sept. 14.
Al Wasel & Babel is registered with the United Nations as alegitimate partner in oil-for-food deals and reportedly has handledclose to $900 million of Iraqi government contracts. Money fromIraq's blocked account with the Banque Nationale de Paris (BNP) isrouted to al-Wasel's account (No. 104 481 4976) at the al-Riggahbranch of the Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank in Dubai, contractualdocuments obtained by Insight show.
The former intelligence officer, who now works with the INC, provideddetails of the dual networks Iraq has set up to get around the U.N.trade restrictions. For five years he personally ran a procurementnetwork based in Dubai for the Special Security Organization, theelite of Saddam's vast intelligence apparatus in charge of overseasprocurement and with hiding key equipment and material for Saddam'sweapons programs. He was arrested by the regime in 1998, viciouslytortured, then given an injection and dumped on the street. Bleedingfrom his nose, mouth and stomach, he managed to escape to NorthernIraq and ultimately to Turkey, where human-rights workers treated himsuccessfully for thallium poisoning, a favorite method of the regimefor executing its enemies.
Saddam's thuggish older son, Uday, controls the first network. Itsprimary purpose is to flood the U.N. sanctions committee with exportrequests to trigger the release of funds from the escrow account withthe BNP in New York City where since 1991 the proceeds from Iraq'soil revenues have been deposited. In some cases, the former officersaid, Uday uses cutouts and middlemen to sign fictitious contractswith European companies for goods such as food and medicine thatroutinely are approved by the United Nations. "Once the contracts areapproved, the money is released from the escrow account," he says."Iraq then pays the company up to 40 percent for the paperwork, andlets them keep the goods. Saddam desperately needs the 60 percent incash for forbidden goods and could care less about food ormedicine."
French exporters, interviewed by Insight, explained yet anotherfinesse of Saddam's commercial network. They said they had beenapproached by an Iraqi front company known as ALIA, based in theGarden district of Amman, Jordan. "Uday uses ALIA to squeeze a 10percent commission from exporters that gets kicked back to theregime," an exporter tells Insight. Large companies such as RenaultVehicules Industriels, Schneider Electric SA and Dow Agroscienceshave used ALIA to sell several hundred million dollars worth ofU.N.-approved goods to Iraq, according to export documents obtainedby Insight. The Iraqi purchases included off-road vehicles, largequantities of specialized pumps and chillers that could be used foruranium enrichment, 2,000-liter and 5,000-liter reactor vesselsneeded to produce chemical weapons and chemicals for pesticides. Allostensibly 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 forpermission to export $1 million worth of oil-well logging equipmentto Iraq under an approved program to rebuild Iraqi oil fields. Suchequipment is particularly sensitive because it includes neutrongenerators which U.N. weapons inspectors discovered were keycomponents in the crude gun-implosion nuclear device Iraq haddesigned and tested before the 1991 gulf war.
The availability of dual-use equipment such as neutron generatorsprovides an additional sense of urgency to the United States andBritain in making the case for war against Iraq. This is how SaddamHussein built his war machine in the 1980s and early 1990s, armsexperts and analysts who track the arms industries in developingcountries agree. And yet, instead of tightening export controls onsuch sales, the United Nations dramatically loosened them in Mayafter intense lobbying from France, Germany, China and Russiaconvinced the State Department to go along.
"Before the new rules," one French exporter of agricultural equipmenttells Insight, "it took us anywhere between 12 and 18 months to get acontract approved by the U.N. sanctions committee. Now they arerequired to give us an answer within 10 days, and failure to replymeans the contract is automatically approved."
Particularly worrying is the loosening of restrictions on high-techequipment. Goods now available for export to Iraq under U.N. SecurityCouncil Resolution 1409, which was adopted in May, include a broadrange of equipment with clear military applications ó fromagricultural sprayers that can be used to disperse biologicalweapons, to fiber optics and telecommunications hardware that havebeen used by the Iraqi military to improve and harden its integratedair-defense network.
Until recently, state-owned Chinese companies were the main suppliersof fiber-optics gear to Baghdad [see "Rogues Lending Hand toSaddam," Feb. 18]. But new documents obtained by Insight showthat Europe's premier technology giants now are getting into the act.Siemens of Germany and Alcatel of France have racked up sales worthseveral hundred million dollars that recently were approved by theU.N. sanctions committee, directly and through overseas subsidiaries.Both companies were partners of Iraq's Ministry of Industry andMilitary Industrialization before the 1991 gulf war. Their return toIraq, albeit under the auspices of providing civiliantelecommunications equipment, gives Baghdad access to the mostadvanced technology currently available in the West.
Now, Saddam has agreed to the return of U.N. arms inspectors, but itwill take them months to develop the cadres and tradecraft to counterIraqi deception, Samore believes. Chief arms inspector Hans Blix "isoperating with a skeletal staff because he has insisted that expertswho come to work for him quit their government jobs to reassure Iraqthat they won't engage in intelligence collection." In his previousrole as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Blixregularly certified that Iraq was engaged in purely civilian nuclearresearch, thus allowing Saddam to import massive amounts of nucleartechnology, 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 theinternational land borders with Iraq. "King Abdallah [ofJordan] threw Lloyds of London out of the port of Aqaba, wherethey were supposed to monitor Iraqi imports," the former Iraqiintelligence officer says. "There are regular convoys of trucks toBaghdad from Jordan, and now a direct rail link from Syria carryingmilitary spare parts and production gear, including equipment neededin Iraq's nuclear-weapons plants."
In June, Iraq brought in by rail from the Syrian port of Tartous ashipment of 60 military jet engines to upgrade aging MiG-21 fighters,the source says. More recently, Iraq purchased four Kolchugaair-defense missile batteries from Ukraine and brought them inthrough Syria. In exchange for its aid, Iraq is supplying Syria with250,000 barrels of oil per day through the reopened Banias pipeline.Syria uses the Iraqi oil for its domestic consumption, freeing up oilfor its own small-scale production to earn hard currency on theexport market.
In Europe, meanwhile, reaction to Bush's U.N. speech was mixed, withmany editorialists claiming the president had "not made the case" forwar with Iraq. But, behind the scenes, well-informed sources tellInsight that the fix is in, the result of intensive backroombargaining during the last six months by administration envoys. Onewell-informed businessman close to French President Jacques Chiracbelieves that the French rejection of the U.S.-U.K. war plans is justfor show. "What Chirac is really afraid of is losing face," thebusinessman tells Insight. "Chirac fears that the Franco-Germanalliance in Europe is being outmaneuvered by Britain and its newallies, Italy and Spain. When push comes to shove, he will sacrificethe French companies now doing business in Iraq and throw in his lotwith the United States."
Samore has made four trips to Moscow in recent months and believesthat securing Russian acquiescence will be the most difficult."[Russian President Vladimir] Putin is probably inclined togo along with Bush at the U.N.," Samore believes. "But people in theRussian security and foreign-policy establishment are resentful ofthe concessions he's already made to Washington, and don't want tolend legitimacy to a U.S. effort to install a pro-U.S. government inBaghdad. It could get ugly."
Iraqi opposition leaders, who also have had quiet discussions withtop Russian officials in recent months, believe Moscow's main concernis getting some return on the $15 billion Iraq owes the former SovietUnion for arms purchases and industrial assistance in the 1980s. "Ithink the Russians are straightforward and keep their word," said oneopposition source. "We don't expect any problem with them."
Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer forInsight magazine.
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Added to this, the British report says intelligence "has confirmedthat Iraq wants to extend the range of its missile systems to morethan 1,000 kilometers (620 miles), enabling it to threaten otherregional neighbors," and can now produce biological-warfare agentsusing "mobile laboratories."
In presenting the Joint Intelligence Committee assessment óthe first of its kind to be released to the public ó PrimeMinister Tony Blair emphasized that "Iraq is preparing plans toconceal evidence of these weapons, including documents, from renewedinspections," explaining the cynicism with which Saddam's promises toallow U.N. weapons inspectors back into Iraq has been greeted inWashington and London. ó KRT
Source: U.N. sanctions committee
Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer forInsight.
email the author