Iraq Said To Have
Components For 3 Nukes
Minus Only Enriched Uranium

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. officials were aware of credible reports that Iraq had built and maintained three or four ''implosion devices'' that lacked only enriched uranium to make 20-kiloton nuclear bombs, but have not been able to corroborate them, the Washington Post reported Wednesday. The newspaper quoted U.S. government and United Nations sources as saying there was no known evidence that Baghdad has acquired plutonium or highly enriched uranium, without which its weapons design cannot be completed. And one senior U.S. official told the paper getting the fissile material would be extremely difficult. But the existence of the weapons shells would be a milestone for Iraq -- and it would likely quash any prospects for the U.N. Security Council to downgrade inspections on nuclear weapons once the current standoff over other weapons inspections ends. Former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter has said repeatedly that Iraq had the components and the knowledge to make three nuclear bombs but did not have the uranium as it had been destroyed by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The IAEA is responsible for investigating any evidence that Iraq is violating a ban on its nuclear weapons program. Ritter, a former Marine who has been critical of U.S. policy since he resigned from the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) in August, testified about the devices to U.S. Senate and House committees on Sept. 4 and Sept. 15. After his testimony, senior U.S. policy-makers said the government had never received such a report from UNSCOM and did not regard the claims as credible. But the Washington Post said in its Wednesday edition that U.S. government and U.N. sources had since confirmed that Ritter passed intelligence about the devices orally to the Central Intelligence Agency's Nonproliferation Center in 1996 and in writing in May 1997 to an interagency group supporting UNSCOM. The newspaper quoted U.S. officials responsible for assessing the reports as saying that they believed the findings are plausible.

``It is credible that they (Iraqi designers) have all the parts to put together,'' one of the officials said Tuesday. ``Do I think there might be parts out there that could provide the basis to put together several weapons? Yeah.'' Since 1996, the Vienna-based IAEA has reported regularly to the U.N. Security Council that it has found ``no indication of prohibited equipment, materials or activities.'' IAEA's Gary Dillon told the Security Council on July 28 that the agency had an adequate picture of Iraq's past nuclear programs but that ``absolute certainty is simply not possible.'' However, he said there were no indications Iraq had the ''physical capability -- hardware and facilities to produce weapons-usable material.'' Sources told the Post that Dillon this month described Ritter's report as ``unsubstantiated'' and said it has ``no credibility.'' Ritter's original information, according to accounts he gave the U.S. government, was compiled from three Iraqi defectors, according to the Washington Post report. Ritter later told the IAEA, according to other sources, that the data came to UNSCOM by way of a ``northern European'' country. The defectors' credibility was enhanced by their detailed descriptions of the methods used by Iraq's Special Security Organization to hide the weapons components, and because their story matched intelligence known only to a handful of Westerners at the time, sources said. About a year after the first report, UNSCOM summarized it in a briefing paper for a conference on Iraq held in Washington on May 19 and 20, 1997, with the U.S. and British governments, sources said. UNSCOM wrote in the briefing paper, which was classified upon receipt by the U.S. government, ``These components may comprise several complete weapons minus the HEU (highly enriched uranium) core.''