Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

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October 1, 2002

Weapons Grade Uranium Moving in Middle East; Iraqi WMD and Delivery Development Being Undertaken in Libya

Analysis. By Gregory R. Copley, Editor. The seizure at the end of September 2002 of weapons grade uranium on the Turkish-Syrian border, and the presence of some 20,000 Iraqi technicians and specialists in Libya, working on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and ballistic missile delivery systems, complicates the political posturing of the United States, the United Nations and other governments on the question of sending weapons inspectors to Iraq to verify compliance with UN resolutions and the terms under which the 1991 Gulf War was ended.

Turkish paramilitary police were reported on September 28, 2002, to have seized more than 15 kg (33 pounds) of weapons-grade uranium and detained two men accused of smuggling the material. Officers in the southern province of Sanliurfa, which borders Syria and is about 250km (155 miles) from the Iraqi border, were reportedly acting on information from an informant when they stopped a taxi cab and discovered the uranium in a lead container hidden beneath the vehicle’s seat. Authorities said that they believed the uranium came from an east European country and had a value of about $5-million. Israel Radio quoted Turkish police as saying that the uranium originally came from a former Soviet state. 

It was not immediately clear when the seizure operation was carried out. The Turkish Anatolian News Agency only gave the first names of the suspects, which appeared to be Turkish. Police in Turkey seized more than one kg of weapons-grade uranium in November 2001; that had been smuggled into Turkey from an east European nation. 

The movement of such large quantities of weapons grade fissionable material meant that evaluations of when countries such as Iraq could field viable nuclear weapons would have to be re-considered. Given the fact that Iraqi and other Arab scientists were now thoroughly familiar with the requirements for nuclear weapons, and had done all of the major engineering, only the production of weapons-grade uranium or plutonium was left as the major challenge. All estimates of the time it would take Iraq, for example, to produce a viable nuclear weapon were based on the local production of the fissionable material on a “milligram by milligram” scale. 

At the same time, Libyan sources have told GIS that they believed that it was possible that the bulk of the “heavy engineering” of Iraq’s strategic weapons programs had been undertaken for some years in Libya, rather than in Iraq itself. This included weaponizing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) payloads (biological, chemical and nuclear) for deployment on ballistic missiles, including the NoDong 1 systems acquired from North Korea (DPRK) in 2000.

Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily of November 8, 2000, reported: 

“The Libyan acquisition of NoDong-1 SSMs is the result of a joint Egyptian-Iraqi-Libyan crash program to overcome delays in production of indigenous SSMs. Initially, the Egyptians and the Iraqis wanted to expedite the production of their own missile in Libya. Cairo arranged for Tripoli to provide cover for the revival of the Bad’r/Condor program which could no longer take place in Iraq and now also not in Egypt because of the exposure by the US of the North Korean (DPRK) rôle and a consequent US pressure to stop the program. Therefore, the Libyans initiated their relations with the DPRK on behalf of Cairo and Baghdad.”

With the bulk of the major strategic weapons program of Iraq being developed outside the country, UN weapons inspections inside Iraq become meaningless. Even before the August 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, Libya and Iraq had maintained a close cooperation — reported on extensively at the time by Defense & Foreign Affairs publications — in the flow of defense matériel and technology, often using Sudan as the staging ground.

At the same time, Libya was itself developing its chemical and biological weapons programs on an unfettered basis, having moved its facilities away from those earlier discovered at such facilities as Rabta. These activities have also been documented extensively by GIS Libya sources in Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, and can be found in the Libya Special Reports section of the ISSA website.

Libyan opposition activists inside the country have said that they cannot understand why the US has ignored the Libya-Iraq connection for so long, and why it has toyed with the idea of normalizing relations with the present Libyan leader, Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi and his son, Saif al-Islam, given the continued commitment of Qadhafi to WMD and terrorism. Some Libyan opposition sources have said that, given Qadhafi’s known terminal illness — confirmed to GIS by Qadhafi’s doctors and by other African leaders close to Qadhafi — they may not be able to wait for US support to remove Qadhafi. It was possible, then, that a move against Qadhafi by internal opponents could come even before a US attack on Iraq. If so, this would materially impact Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s ability to utilize his strategic weapons.

What was significant about the November 8, 2000, reports was that the NoDong 1 missiles already operational in Libya were targeted at European cities. These were missiles reportedly partly paid for by Iraq.