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Iraq's nuclear capability still a riddle

Armed with stringent U.N. requirements and the latest equipment, arms inspectors are picking up where their predecessors left off in the hide-and-seek world of deadly Iraqi weapons. If they are half as successful as their forerunners, they will uncover mountains of data and equipment bearing on the development of weapons of mass destruction, despite President Saddam Hussein's assertions that he has already come clean.

The nuclear inspectors who arrived in Iraq in 1991 after the Persian Gulf War succeeded in documenting a major Iraqi atomic push. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which led the nuclear inspections, discovered that Iraq had imported nearly 110 pounds of highly enriched uranium from France and Russia.

The Natural Resources Defense Council calculates that this would have been enough material, depending on the builder's skill, to make three to 10 bombs the size of the one that destroyed Hiroshima.

The inspectors also found that Iraq planned to build a centrifuge of 1,000 machines designed to produce 10 kilograms of highly enriched uranium a year, and had drawn up bomb designs.

By February 1994, the agency had removed the nuclear-arms fuel from Iraq; it eventually supervised or verified the destruction of all of Iraq's known nuclear-arms installations and gear.

But even after combing Iraq from 1991 to 1998, and after uncovering and destroying tons of forbidden weapons, the inspectors left with as many questions as answers.

"We still don't know why they wanted nuclear weapons and what they intended to do with them," said David Albright, a former inspector and head of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington research group.

Among the nuclear riddles remaining: Where are the key technical documents, including design drawings for nuclear arms and gas centrifuges, that Iraq failed to turn over to inspectors at that time?

As for the new inspectors' chances, said Albright, "They've got a leg up." He cited new inspection gear that is smaller, more powerful and easier to use than in the 1990s. "That's really important," said Albright, a physicist. "It makes for much better investigative tools."

Moreover, the new inspection rules are more aggressive, demanding "immediate, unimpeded, unconditional and unrestricted access" to Hussein's sprawling presidential palaces.

But to the White House, which said on Sept. 12 that Iraq was awash in new activity, the challenges have kept pace with the progress. "Iraq has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb," the White House said. As evidence, it cited Iraq's attempts to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes, which American officials said were meant for centrifuges to enrich uranium.

Some private experts, such as Albright, say that the aluminum tubes have benign uses and that they doubt that Iraq wants them for nuclear enrichment.

The British government said in a report on Sept. 24 that "no definitive intelligence" linked the tubes to a nuclear program but said that Baghdad was "almost certainly seeking an indigenous ability to enrich uranium to the level needed for a nuclear weapon."

The group investigating deadly chemicals in the '90s, the U.N. Special Commission, found vast industrial-scale production. The commission eventually destroyed more than 38,000 filled and unfilled chemical munitions and oversaw the destruction of thousands of tons of chemical-warfare agents and precursor chemicals, according to the Arms Control Association in Washington.

These inspectors also uncovered Iraq's VX program. VX, a nerve agent, is so potent that a drop on the skin can kill an adult within minutes. Iraq claimed to have produced 3.9 tons of VX but failed to account for its alleged destruction.

A remaining riddle for the new chemical warfare inspectors is: Did Iraq really lose, as it claimed, 550 shells filled with mustard gas, which causes chemical burns and blisters?

In its Sept. 12 report, the White House said Baghdad was "seeking to purchase chemical-weapons agent precursors and applicable production equipment, and is making an effort to hide activities at the Falluja plant," previously one of Iraq's production sites for chemical arms.

Britain said in its Sept. 24 report that its intelligence community believed that Iraq could "produce significant quantities of mustard gas within weeks and of nerve agent within months."