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IRAQ: Weapons of Mass Destruction

April 9, 2003
This publication is now archived.

Does Iraq have weapons of mass destruction?

That seems certain. Although Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein claims to have destroyed his entire stockpile of chemical and biological weapons--and the capability to rebuild his arsenal--in accordance with U.N. Security Council resolutions imposed after the 1991 Gulf War, virtually no experts believe him. Moreover, intelligence officials say that Saddam continues to try to acquire nuclear weapons. In a September 12, 2002, speech to the U.N. General Assembly, President Bush called Saddam's regime a "grave and gathering danger" that is building up its stores of deadly chemical and biological agents and trying to get the bomb.

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What is the nature of Iraq's weapons capability?

It's not clear. No U.N. weapons inspectors were in Iraq between December 1998 and November 2002. Current U.S. estimates of Saddam's arsenal are drawn from discoveries made by current inspections and from testimony by Iraqi defectors, satellite surveillance, other intelligence sources, and Iraqi purchases of specialized equipment and materials that could help produce illicit weapons. In 1991-1998, when inspectors were in Iraq, they did not uncover the full extent of Iraq's weapons capabilities because Saddam's regime had become so skillful at hiding its arms programs. Many suspect that deception continues.

Does Iraq have nuclear weapons?

Probably not, experts say. But Iraq has been trying to get the bomb since the early 1970s. The Iraqi nuclear program suffered a major setback in 1981, when the Israeli air force destroyed Iraq's Osiraq nuclear reactor, outside Baghdad. The loss of Osiraq drove much of Saddam's nuclear program into hiding. Experts say that at the time of the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq was just months away from having refined enough highly enriched uranium to build a single crude nuclear weapon--far closer to getting the bomb than coalition leaders had realized. But by the time the U.N. inspectors left in 1998, they had destroyed much of the Iraqi nuclear program.

How soon could Iraq get nuclear weapons?

Experts disagree. Iraq could probably pull together the funding, scientific expertise, technical equipment, and infrastructure needed to build a nuclear weapon, but it almost certainly lacks one key ingredient: enough fissile material, such as highly enriched uranium, necessary to spark a nuclear explosion.

Could Iraq enrich enough uranium on its own to make a

We don't know. The Bush administration warns that Iraq has been trying to purchase a large quantity of sophisticated aluminum tubes that could be used in centrifuges to produce highly enriched uranium. If Iraq got the tubes, experts say it could still take years to build the centrifuges and then enrich enough uranium for a single bomb. A recent report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) argues that Iraq would need several years and extensive foreign assistance to build the facilities to produce its own highly enriched uranium; British intelligence offers similar estimates, arguing that it would take Iraq at least five years to create enough fissile material for a bomb.

Could Iraq get fissile material some other way?

Perhaps. Experts say Saddam could acquire a bomb far sooner by stealing or buying highly enriched uranium on the black market. A September 2002 dossier from Britain's intelligence services reports that Iraq has been trying to acquire fissile material from unspecified countries in Africa. Experts say that the former Soviet republics might also be a likely source. The Bush administration says that if Saddam acquired fissile material, he could have a nuclear bomb within months--an estimate that largely agrees with the independent IISS report. British intelligence estimates are somewhat more conservative, arguing that it might still take Iraq a year or two.

Could Iraq launch a nuclear attack?

Not easily, experts say. Even if Iraq succeeded in making a crude warhead, the device would be very large and hard to transport abroad or pass to terrorists without detection. Iraqi missiles probably couldn't carry such a hefty warhead, and an Iraqi plane carrying such a device would risk being shot down by neighboring states.

Does Iraq have biological weapons?

Probably, most experts say, but we don't know exactly which ones. Iraq secretly launched an offensive biowarfare program in 1985. After the Gulf War, Saddam claimed to have destroyed all of his germ warfare agents and munitions but admitted to having previously produced 25 missile warheads and 166 aerial bombs variously filled with such agents as anthrax, botulinum toxin, and aflatoxin. Iraq also claimed to have produced about 20,000 liters of botulinum toxin solution, 8,500 liters of anthrax solution, and 2,200 liters of aflatoxin-but U.N. inspectors believe the Iraqis probably made thousands more liters of the deadly agents. Some experts also say we can't rule out the possibility that Iraq might also have the smallpox virus tucked away; there was an outbreak of the disease in Iraq in the 1970s, and Iraqi scientists have experimented with the closely related camelpox virus.

Could Iraq make more biological agents?

Yes. In May 2000, the British government estimated that even if Iraq had halted its biological weapons program, it could rebuild it within months, and the Bush administration has accused Saddam's regime of constructing mobile bioweapons labs.

Has Iraq ever used biological weapons?

No.

Does Iraq have chemical weapons?

Almost certainly, experts say. Iraq has admitted that it produced 3,859 tons of chemical weapons in the 1980s, including mustard gas and lethal nerve agents such as sarin, tabun, and VX. U.N. weapons inspectors uncovered and destroyed much of Iraq's chemical weapons stockpiles, munitions, and production facilities. But when inspectors were withdrawn in 1998, Iraq allegedly retained 6,000 chemical bombs, as well as 550 artillery shells filled with mustard gas and some amount of VX. Iraq is also thought to have the precursor chemicals necessary to brew hundreds of tons more of mustard gas and nerve agents.

How might Iraq deliver biological or chemical weapons?

Several ways. While Iraq is prohibited by U.N. resolutions from building missiles with a range of more than 150 kilometers (about 100 miles), British intelligence indicates that it retains a stockpile of up to 20 al-Hussein missiles with a range of 400 miles--enough to hit Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, or U.S. bases in Kuwait and Qatar. These modified Scud-B missiles could be fitted with germ or chemical warheads and launched within 45 minutes of a command, according to British estimates. But other experts maintain that Iraq hasn't yet perfected the missile technology to deliver chemical or biological weapons; the explosion of a missile warhead could destroy much of its chemical or biological payload.

More feasibly, experts say, Iraq could spread deadly germs or gases with shorter-range rockets, artillery shells, unmanned low-flying drones, or sprayers mounted on fighter jets, helicopters, or ships. The Bush administration has also warned that Iraq could pass weapons of mass destruction to terrorists, although some experts argue that Saddam is unlikely to share his prized doomsday weapons.

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