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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S.: Iraq Is Hunting for Nukes

WASHINGTON -- More than a decade after Iraqi President 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, U.S. officials said Saturday.

In the past 14 months, Iraq has tried to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes, which American officials believe were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium. American officials said several efforts to arrange the shipment of the high-strength tubes were blocked or intercepted, but they declined to say, citing the extreme sensitivity of the intelligence, where they came from or how they were stopped.

The diameter, thickness and other technical specifications of the aluminum tubes had convinced American 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. Saddam has met several times in recent months with Iraq's top nuclear scientists and, according to American intelligence, praised their efforts as part of his campaign against the West.

Iraqi defectors who once worked for the nuclear weapons establishment there have told American officials that acquiring nuclear arms is again a top Iraqi priority. American intelligence agencies are also monitoring new construction at potential nuclear sites.

While there is no indication that Iraq is on the verge of deploying a nuclear bomb, Iraq's pursuit of nuclear weapons has been cited by hard-liners in the U.S. government to make the argument that the United States must act now, before Saddam acquires nuclear arms and thus alters the strategic balance in the Persian Gulf.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair met with U.S. President George W. Bush on Saturday to reaffirm his nation's support for action against Iraq.

Iraq's nuclear program is not Washington's only concern. An Iraqi defector said Saddam had also heightened his efforts to develop new chemical weapons. An Iraqi opposition leader also gave American officials a paper from Iranian intelligence indicating that Saddam 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 American officials, was provided by Abdalaziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an Iran-based group, 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. In the unfolding debate, administration hard-liners argue that possession of nuclear arms would enhance Iraq's sway in the region.

Administration officials also assert that the acquisition of nuclear arms might embolden Saddam and increase the chances that he might use chemical or biological weapons. The officials contend that Saddam refrained from using chemical and germ weapons during the 1991 Persian Gulf War because he feared a devastating retaliatory blow from the United States and that he might now conclude that the Americans would not dare strike him if he had nuclear weapons.

"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 action to remove Saddam. "The question is 'why is waiting better?' The closer Saddam Hussein gets to a nuclear weapon the harder he will be to deal with."

Scott Ritter, a former UN arms inspector who rejects U.S. charges that Iraq is developing weapons of mass destruction, has arrived in Baghdad declaring that his mission is to try to stop any U.S.-led war on Iraq, Reuters reported.

Ritter, who arrived in Baghdad late Saturday, was expected to address the Iraqi parliament Sunday. He was also due to meet senior Iraqi government officials.

Ritter said the trip was at his own initiative "as an American citizen concerned about the direction that my country is taking. I think that's the reason why I'm here.

"I'm here to help set in motion a sequence of events that hopefully could prevent a war that doesn't need to be fought," he told CNN.

Ritter, a former Marine who resigned his UN post in 1998 and later accused Washington of using the inspections teams to spy on Iraq, said last month that Baghdad had been fundamentally disarmed after the 1991 Gulf War that drove Iraqi troops out of Kuwait.