WASHINGTON - More than a decade after Saddam Hussein agreed to give up weapons of mass destruction, Iraq has intensified its quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb, Bush administration officials said yesterday.
In the past 14 months, Iraq has tried to buy thousands of specialized aluminum tubes, which U.S. officials believe were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium. U.S. officials said several efforts to arrange shipment of the high-strength tubes were blocked or intercepted, but, citing the sensitivity of the information, they declined to say where they came from or how they were stopped.
The diameter, thickness and other technical specifications of the aluminum tubes had convinced U.S. intelligence experts that they were meant for Iraq's nuclear program, officials said, and that the latest attempt to ship the material had taken place in recent months.
The attempted purchases are not the only signs of a renewed Iraqi interest in acquiring nuclear arms. Hussein has met several times in recent months with Iraq's top nuclear scientists, according to U.S. intelligence data.
Iraqi defectors who once worked for the nuclear weapons establishment there have told U.S. officials that acquiring nuclear arms is an Iraqi priority. U.S. intelligence agencies are also monitoring construction at potential nuclear sites.
Iraq's pursuit of nuclear weapons has been used by hard-liners in the Bush administration to argue that the United States must act before Hussein acquires nuclear arms.
Iraq's nuclear program is not Washington's only concern. An Iraqi defector said Hussein had also heightened his efforts to develop new chemical weapons. An Iraqi opposition leader also gave U.S. officials a paper from Iranian intelligence indicating that Hussein has authorized regional commanders to use chemical and biological weapons to put down any Shiite Muslim resistance that might occur if the United States attacks.
The paper, which is being analyzed by U.S. officials, was provided by Abdalaziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a group based in Iran, during his recent visit with other Iraqi opposition leaders in Washington.
Much of the administration's case, however, revolves around Iraq's attempts to develop nuclear weapons and assessments of the pace of the efforts.
"The jewel in the crown is nuclear," a senior administration official said. "The closer he gets to a nuclear capability, the more credible is his threat to use chemical or biological weapons. Nuclear weapons are his hole card."
"The question is not 'why now?' " the official said, referring to a potential military campaign to remove Hussein. "The question is 'why is waiting better?' The closer Saddam Hussein gets to a nuclear weapon the harder he will be to deal with."
Although hard-liners complain that intelligence about Iraq's program is often spotty, they plan to declassify some of it to make their case in coming weeks.
The administration's critics assert that the past decade has shown that Hussein can be contained through a combination of United Nations sanctions, carefully designed inspections and, if Iraq refuses to admit monitors, air strikes. Washington, the critics say, has time to try its hand at diplomacy.
The Central Intelligence Agency says it would take Iraq five to seven years to make a nuclear weapon if it must produce its own supply of highly enriched uranium for a bomb, a Bush administration official said.
U.S. intelligence officials believe that Iraq could assemble a nuclear device in a year or somewhat less if it obtained the nuclear material for a bomb on the black market. But they say that there are no signs that Iraq has acquired such a supply.
Painting an up-to-date picture of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction is not easy. U.N. weapons inspectors have not visited Iraq in almost four years, leaving large gaps in their knowledge about Hussein's weapons programs.
Consequently, Bush administration officials are hoping to use what one official called a "mosaic" of new reports to underscore their warnings about Iraq's military ambitions.