TRIPOLI, Libya -- Pakistan was the source of the centrifuge design technology that made it possible for Libya to make major strides in the past two years in enriching uranium for use in nuclear weapons, officials in Washington and other Western experts said yesterday.
The officials emphasized that they possessed no evidence that the Pakistani government of President Pervez Musharraf a crucial ally in the pursuit of al- Qaida knew about the transfer of technology to Libya, which helped finance Pakistans early nuclear weapons program three decades ago.
Many of the centrifuge parts that Libya imported, and that Italy intercepted in October, were manufactured in Malaysia, according to experts familiar with the investigation.
The timing of the transfer of the centrifuge design from Pakistan calls into question Musharrafs ability to make good on his vow to President Bush that he will rein in Pakistani scientists selling their nuclear expertise around the globe.
The general made that pledge shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in New York and Washington. Yet the main aid to Libya appears to have come since then, suggesting Pakistani scientists continued the trade even after the explicit warning.
It has all the hallmarks of a Pakistani system, a senior official in Washington said. These guys are now three for three as supplier to the biggest proliferation problems we have, referring to previously disclosed Pakistani aid to the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran.
Libya agreed Dec. 19 to dismantle its nuclear program and open itself to full inspections, which have already begun. But yesterday Bush issued a statement saying U.S. economic sanctions against Libya would continue until the country takes concrete steps to disarm.
Bush pointed the way to a lifting of sanctions, however. As Libya takes tangible steps to address those concerns, he said in a statement to Congress, the United States will in turn take reciprocal tangible steps to recognize Libyas progress.
The United States and Britain have declined to identify publicly the sources of uranium-enrichment technology shipped to Libya. They still will not discuss the origin of many of the parts that Libya obtained from a network of middlemen and dealers.
Those shipments are often hard to trace: The ship containing the Malaysian-made components in October picked them up in Dubai, a major transshipment point for both legitimate and banned technology.
One Western diplomat said some Pakistani nuclear scientists operated as though they were running Nukes R Us.
Still, a senior Bush administration official said it would be wrong to say the Pakistani government was involved.
The technology of uranium enrichment is out there on the black market, he said. He said that to say the government of Musharraf was involved would be like saying an American drug smuggler arrested on the border was working for the United States government.
While Washington has waxed eloquent over the Libyan decision to disarm, some officials are concerned that Libyan leader Col. Muammar el-Kadafi could change his mind, especially if the United States does not to act on an implicit pledge to lift the economic blockade.
To speed disarmament, the United States, Britain and Libya have agreed to begin private talks in London this week among intelligence personnel of the three countries to work out detailed plans to verify and dismantle Libyas nuclear, chemical and other weapons programs.
Senior Western officials said yesterday that over the weekend, the United States and Britain agreed on a common approach to the disarmament task after a visit to London by John R. Bolton, the undersecretary of state in charge of nonproliferation matters.
Statements yesterday in London and by a senior U.S. official suggested that Mohamed El-Baradei and his International Atomic Energy Agency will initially play a subordinate role as Britain and the United States move swiftly to inventory the full scope of Libya's illicit weapons programs and then take a prominent role in their dismantling.