Monday, July 7, 2008

Saddam Hussein's Nuke Program — Myth or Reality?

I haven't written much publicly about the Iraq War yet, apart from scattered comments on other sites. Fortunately, it may be over before I get around to it. But in the meantime, there is one thing that has long been a bone of contention between some of those who opposed invading Iraq and those who support(ed) it: the putative presence (or absence) of WMD as justification for the effort.

I always thought it was not the best way to argue in favor of the war effort, especially since that causus belli was entirely unnecessary. But whether or not WMD were present in Iraq is a matter of fact, not philosophical argument. Like many, I thought Hussein had them, especially since he'd used them on the Kurds.

Whether or not he had nuclear weapons, or an active program to produce them was trickier to decide. Many, perhaps most, based on alleged lack of such materials found after the invasion, decided he had not. Some argued they had been spirited off to Syria; possible, but not likely. If they had been found, others argued, the Bush administration would have trumpted it loudly, in order to say "I told you so" and justify the invasion.

But, oddly, no renewal of those arguments has been heard in the blogosphere the past few days, even though this story has recently been widely reported.

The last major remnant of Saddam Hussein's nuclear program - a huge stockpile of concentrated natural uranium - reached a Canadian port Saturday to complete a secret U.S. operation that included a two-week airlift from Baghdad and a ship voyage crossing two oceans.

The removal of 550 metric tons of "yellowcake" - the seed material for higher-grade nuclear enrichment - was a significant step toward closing the books on Saddam's nuclear legacy. It also brought relief to U.S. and Iraqi authorities who had worried the cache would reach insurgents or smugglers crossing to Iran to aid its nuclear ambitions.

Now, I'm far from an expert on nuclear weapons production. But, having researched nuclear power extensively for several years, I'm not completely ignorant of the subject, either.

So, I wonder why (when he had 550 metric tons of yellowcake) doesn't it follow that Hussein can reasonably be said to have had an active nuclear weapons program? After all, once you have the material, and a means for refining it (which he could have, I understand, acquired from AQ Khan's network for the asking, along with a bomb design), the rest would seem pretty straightforward.

[Aside: One of the things Bush got beat up for was being wrong ("lying," if you prefer the alternative interpretation, I don't) about Hussein getting yellowcake from Niger.]

I loathe conspiracy theories, and the mentality which latches eagerly on to them. But, I don't see here why it would be unreasonable to declare that Hussein had a WMD program that could readily have brought to fruition a nuclear bomb had he desired.

Anyone familiar with the details, please straighten me out.

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