WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration, responding to charges that Iraq is hiding significant amounts of nuclear weapons material, has ordered the Pentagon to draw up plans for military strikes on possible nuclear caches throughout Iraq, administration officials say.
The officials confirmed reports of the military planning just a day after a senior U.S. diplomat at the United Nations charged publicly that Iraq was hiding what remains of its nuclear weapons program.
The Pentagon officially refused yesterday to say whether the United States was considering such a strike on the remnants of Iraq's nuclear facilities. But Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams launched some of the strongest rhetoric that U.S. officials have aimed at Baghdad since the end of the Persian Gulf war.
"They're clearly trying to hide something," Williams said. "That is intolerable under the terms of the U.N. Security Council resolutions [to which Iraq agreed after the war], and we have made our point very clear on that."
Secretary of State James A. Baker yesterday called Iraq's alleged concealment "extraordinarily serious." Asked what the United States could do beyond maintaining economic sanctions against Iraq, Baker would only say to reporters, "Stay tuned."
At the United Nations, the president of the Security Council met with Iraq's Ambassador Abdul Amir Anbari and demanded that Iraq immediately turn over to international nuclear inspectors equipment to enrich uranium that allegedly was moved from a Baghdad army base to avoid confiscation.
U.S. officials Wednesday had taken the unusual step of providing the Security Council with surveillance photographs to support its claim that Iraq removed uranium-enrichment equipment from the military base after being surprised by a snap inspection.
"The Bush administration at the very highest levels has reacted violently to what's happened with Iraqi nuclear capability," one knowledgeable official said. "The administration takes this all very seriously."
Pentagon officials said the United States has two aircraft carriers, with more than 100 combat aircraft, within striking range of Iraq. The carrier Nimitz has been operating inside the Persian Gulf for several months, and the carrier Forrestal yesterday was docked in Haifa, Israel. The Forrestal has been supporting Kurdish refugee relief operations.
American troops in the region have dwindled to 65,000 -- roughly 12 percent of their peak presence during the war -- making a resumption of ground operations against Iraq improbable.