LONDON - Iraq could assemble nuclear weapons within months if it were able to buy or steal the necessary raw materials, according to a report issued yesterday by an independent research institute.
The report, by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, bolstered the arguments of the Bush administration and others that Iraq poses an imminent and growing threat to regional stability and world peace.
The report's editor, Gary Samore, who served on the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton, said it is unlikely, but not impossible, that Iraq will be able to obtain the fissile material needed to build nuclear warheads.
"I personally think it's a low probability, but I don't think you can rule it out," Samore said.
If Iraq were able to build such weapons, the balance of power in the region would change very quickly, and dealing with the regime would suddenly become far more difficult, he said.
In any event, the report concludes, Iraq will probably be able to amass a nuclear stockpile within a few years by making its own fissile material. Iraq already has biological and chemical weapons, it noted.
For 40 years, the respected institute has published annual inventories of the world's armed forces. To assess the state of Iraq's program to acquire so-called weapons of mass destruction - nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, sometimes referred to collectively as WMD - the institute compiled reports from U.N. inspections, talked with technical experts and weapons inspectors who have experience on the ground, and called on its own sources. The authors also engaged in educated conjecture about what Iraq has been able to accomplish since weapons inspectors left the country four years ago.
The report paints a bleak picture of the prospects for peace under Saddam Hussein.
"The retention of WMD capabilities by Iraq is self-evidently the core objective of the regime, for it has sacrificed all other domestic and foreign policy goals to this singular aim," said John Chipman, the institute's director.
In Baghdad, Foreign Minister Naji Sabri said the United States and Britain are making "false accusations" that Iraq is producing weapons of mass destruction. President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair discussed Iraq at a weekend meeting at Camp David.
"We challenge them to present one piece of evidence, a single piece of evidence for these accusations," Sabri said.
Yesterday, Iraq attempted to refute claims that it is rebuilding several sites that some Western experts believe have been used in the regime's nuclear program.
The government escorted reporters on a tour of buildings near Baghdad that it said were used for civilian environmental, medical and agricultural research.
According to the report, the Iraqi government has become adept at deception and denial.
The Persian Gulf war and the subsequent U.N. weapons inspections set back Iraq's weapons programs and significantly retarded their later development. But the programs were not eliminated, the report said.
Highlights of the institute's conclusions:
Had the gulf war not intervened, Iraq would probably have accumulated about a dozen nuclear weapons by the end of the 1990s. If the country is unable to buy or steal material needed for nuclear weapons, it will probably need several years to make its own.
Iraq has the capacity to produce biological weapons in significant quantities. However, mass casualties are unlikely "unless Iraq has made substantial advances in delivery technology." Still, the biological agents could be used by commandos or terrorists.
Although Iraq's capacity to deploy chemical weapons is not as great as it was before the gulf war, it could use chemical weapons on the battlefield and against civilians.
Iraq can probably assemble a dozen or so al-Hussein missiles with a range of about 400 miles, which could enable it to deliver chemical or biological weapons to cities in Israel, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran.
Iraq's possession of these weapons poses a danger, Samore said, because it has a "demonstrated proclivity" to use force in pursuit of its political objectives.
Chipman said that, left unchecked, the Iraqi government will probably acquire the weapons systems it has sought for so long.
"Sooner or later, it seems likely that this current Iraqi regime's objectives will be met," he said.