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Experts Assess the Threat Posed by Iraq, Part 1 - 2002-03-16

As the Bush administration considers whether Iraq will be the next target in the U.S. led war on terrorism, U.S. lawmakers are getting their own assessments of the threat posed by Iraq. A series of experts appeared before Congress recently to outline Iraq's weapons' capabilities. VOA's Deborah Tate has this first of three reports on Iraq, from Capitol Hill.

President Bush has labeled Iraq part of an 'axis of evil' along with North Korea and Iran and says Bagdhad must face unspecified consequences if it does not allow United Nations weapons inspectors to return.

The administration believes Iraq resumed its weapons of mass destruction program after expelling U.N. inspectors in December 1998.

Many experts agree. Robert Einhorn is a former Assistant Secretary Of State For Nonproliferation and is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies here in Washington. He offered his assessment at a recent Senate Governmental affairs subcommittee hearing. "Today, or at most within a few months, Iraq could launch missile attacks with chemical or biological weapons at its neighbors," he said. "Within four or five years, it could have the capability to threaten most of the Middle East and parts of Europe, with missiles armed with nuclear weapons containing highly-enriched uranium produced indigenously. Within that same period, it could threaten U.S. territory with nuclear weapons delivered by non-conventional means. If Iraq managed to get its hands on sufficient quantities of already-produced fissile material, these threats could arrive much earlier."

It is a scenario backed by German intelligence officials, according to the former chief U.N. weapons inspector David Kay, who quoted published reports about the Iraq weapons program at the same Congressional hearing. "The Germans last year cited that because of major Iraqi procurement efforts that were continuing at least through the end of last year, that in the worst case, without external assistance on new fissile material, Iraq would have nuclear weapons in three to six years," he said.

The experts expressed concern about the potential for Iraq to share its weapons of mass destruction materials and expertise with terrorist groups.

Mr. Einhorn also warned of regional implications if the international community does not stop Iraq from pursuing its weapons programs. "If we fail to stop them, we will have a much more difficult time heading off Iran's efforts to acquire comparable capabilities, and a nuclear arms competition north of the Gulf will certainly stimulate interests in such capabilities elsewhere," he said.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, hoping to avert any military confrontation between Washington and Baghdad, held talks with Iraqi officials last week in an effort to resume weapons inspections. A second round of talks is to be held next month.

But many in the Bush administration and many experts are skeptical about the effectiveness of U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq, and Congress appears divided on the matter. VOA's Deborah Tate explores that issue in her next report.