WASHINGTON -- A senior Iraqi nuclear scientist has defected to the United States and told Pentagon experts that a significant part of Saddam Hussein's nuclear research facilities survived U.S. bombing raids during the Persian Gulf war, officials said yesterday.
The defector, who reportedly drove up to a U.S. military checkpoint in northern Iraq last month and asked for asylum, is being debriefed by U.S. officials as part of a wider effort to determine how much nuclear material Iraq still has and whether Mr. Hussein's regime is still capable of developing a nuclear weapon.
The scientist's account could be key to a United Nations effort to locate Iraq's store of weapons-grade uranium and arrange for its destruction.
His reported statements also cast new doubt on the fulfillment of one of the main U.S. aims in the war, the destruction of Iraq's ability to build weapons of mass destruction.
Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the allied commander in the war, said in January that U.S.-led bombing raids "have neutralized their manufacturing capabilities, their nuclear manufacturing capability." The defector's information reportedly contradicts that claim.
The Department of Defense is "taking the lead" in debriefing the scientist, who is being held in protective custody at an undisclosed location.
The Bush administration refused to confirm the defection, which was first reported by National Public Radio. "I don't have any comment on the specifics . . . since they clearly involve intelligence matters of some sensitivity," State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said.
Several officials said they were unhappy that the incident had been disclosed. "We didn't want Saddam to know this," said one. He expressed concern that the Iraqi regime might react by putting its remaining nuclear scientists under close surveillance, thus complicating U.S. intelligence efforts to contact them.
"None of these cases do we want to deal with in public," he said. Asked if his use of the word "cases" implied that there were more than one Iraqi defector in U.S. custody, the official refused to speak further.
NPR reported that the scientist drove up to a U.S. Marine checkpoint near Dohuk in northern Iraq --along with his wife, his brother and a friend -- and announced that he was a nuclear scientist who wanted to defect. The U.S. troops are in Iraq under a United Nations mandate to protect refugees who fled the country after an abortive Kurdish insurrection in March. The scientist told U.S. officials in Iraq that the allies' 42-day bombing campaign missed some nuclear facilities entirely and failed to destroy others that were apparently targeted but sheltered in deeply buried bunkers, NPR reported.