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Defector: Iraq could have nukes by 2005

Former U.N. weapons inspector Richard Butler talks to Iraqi defector Khidir Hamza Wednesday before both addressed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A former Iraqi nuclear engineer told a Senate hearing Wednesday that the country could have nuclear weapons by 2005.

Khidir Hamza, who defected from Iraq in 1994, and other experts on Iraq testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the start of two days of hearings on the Iraqi threat to the United States and possible U.S. responses -- including a military attack.

Citing German intelligence estimates, Hamza said Iraq had more than 10 tons of uranium and one ton of slightly enriched uranium. Hamza said that could give Iraq enough weapons-grade uranium to build three nuclear weapons within three years.

In addition, Hamza said, Iraq is trying to extend the range of its missiles in order to reach Israel.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein denies his government is developing weapons of mass destruction, but it expelled international weapons inspectors in 1998.

President Bush has branded Iraq part of an "axis of evil," three countries that support terrorism and are developing chemical, biological and nuclear weapons; the others are Iran and North Korea.

News accounts have indicated Pentagon planners are considering several options for overthrowing Hussein.

Proponents of a U.S. assault on Iraq say there is evidence to support the claim that Iraq is a safe haven for al Qaeda and other terrorists. CNN's Mike Boettcher reports (July 31)

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CNN Access: Sen. Chuck Hagel: Saddam scenario is complex 

Hamza said Hussein has a long history of involvement in international terrorism -- a history that ranges from assassinations of Iraqis abroad in the 1970s and 1980s to links with Islamic fundamentalists today.

"With a Soviet-style economy that's basically geared toward war and its requirements, Iraq is currently the only Arab state that all Arab extremists look at as the future challenger to Israel and U.S. interests in the region," he said.

"Thus, if Saddam makes it into the nuclear arena, he will be the region's undisputed leader in Arab eyes."

Sen. Joe Biden, the committee chairman, said Bush is justified in being concerned about Iraq's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.

"One thing is clear: These weapons must be must be dislodged from Saddam, or Saddam must be dislodged from power," said Biden, D-Delaware.

The hearings were "not designed to prejudge any particular course of action," Biden said. But he cautioned that considerable thought must be given to the U.S. role in Iraq if it wages a successful assault.

"In Afghanistan, the war was prosecuted exceptionally well, but the follow-through commitment to Afghanistan's security and reconstruction has, in my judgment, fallen short," Biden said. "It would be a tragedy if we removed a tyrant in Iraq only to leave chaos in his wake."

Rumsfeld: Saddam 'a serious problem'

Richard Butler, former head of the U.N. weapons inspection team in Iraq, said he supports arms control and disarmament before the United States considers military action against Iraq -- but only if Iraq cooperates with those efforts.

"It is essential that Iraq is brought into conformity with the law," Butler said.

According to Butler, when weapons inspectors went into Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Hussein's nuclear program was far enough along to produce a crude nuclear device within about six months.

"What there is now is evidence that Saddam has reinvigorated his nuclear weapons program," Butler said.

The hearings convene Wednesday.
The hearings convene Wednesday.  

Iraq also has an extensive chemical weapons program, and has tested various ways to deliver biological weapons, he said.

Iraqi officials have been met with U.N. representatives three times to discuss the return of weapons inspectors, but Iraq accuses the United States of wanting inspectors to return to provide intelligence information for a possible attack.

When asked whether Bush feels inspectors could successfully return to Iraq, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters Wednesday, "The president's level of skepticism is high."

"Saddam Hussein has entered into agreements before that he has immediately violated," Fleischer said. Hussein never complied fully with the rules of the inspections, he said.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday that Hussein is a "serious problem." He noted that diplomatic efforts and sanctions imposed against Iraq seem to have been exhausted.

"The progress that he has been able to make in proliferating the terrorist states all across the globe is a serious one," Rumsfeld said. "I guess there's room for all types of efforts -- political, economic, diplomatic and military."

War would be no 'cakewalk,' analyst says

Iraq's military was badly battered in the Persian Gulf War, but its military capabilities and its inventory of chemical and biological weapons are not forces "that can be dismissed," testified Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Iraqi forces "do have serious defects," including a decimated air force and a badly damaged air defense system. But Iraqi commanders have learned a great deal from the Gulf War and a decade of periodic U.S.-led airstrikes, he said.

"Iraq might be a far easier opponent than its force strengths indicate. But it also is potentially a very serious military opponent indeed," Cordesman said.

"And to be perfectly blunt, I think only fools would bet the lives of other men's sons and daughters on their own arrogance and call this force a cakewalk or a speed bump or something that you can dismiss."

Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, a senior Republican on the committee, urged Bush to seek congressional approval for any military action against Iraq.

"We must estimate soberly the human and economic cost of war plans and post-war plans," he said.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, agreed. "It would be a big mistake for the administration to act without Congress and without its involvement," he said.

"I think there has to be a debate; there has to be some good discussion," Daschle said. "There has to be some opportunity for the people to be heard. ... Congress needs to be equal and full partners in this discussion, and ultimately in the decision."

Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott suggested that Congress had already given Bush the authorization he needs to attack Iraq.

"I suspect that al Qaeda elements are in Iraq," said Lott, R-Mississippi. "[In] the resolution that we passed, we made it very clear that the president has authority to pursue the al Qaeda wherever they may be found, whatever country, which could very well include Iraq."

He said it is "legitimate" for Congress to hold hearings on Hussein and Iraq, but "there is a blatant political move that is not helpful."

"You know, what do they want us to say, 'Oh, Mr. Saddam Hussein, we're coming, we're coming, get ready. You can expect us two weeks after Election Day and by the way here is the way we are coming, but before that we will have a huge debate, so you will know full well exactly what is going on.' Give me a break," Lott said.




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