As troops amassed on his border near the start of the Persian Gulf War, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein weighed the purchase of a $150 million nuclear “package” deal that included not only weapons designs but also production plants and foreign experts to supervise the building of a nuclear bomb, according to documents uncovered by a former UN weapons inspector.
The offer, made in 1990 by an agent linked to disgraced Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, guaranteed Iraq a weapons-assembly line capable of producing nuclear warheads in as
little as three years. But Iraq lost the chance to capitalise when, months later, a multinational force crushed the Iraqi army and forced Hussein to abandon his nuclear ambitions, according to nuclear weapons expert David Albright, who describes the deal in a new book.
Iraqi officials at the time appear to have taken the offer seriously.
They asked the Pakistanis for sample drawings as proof of their ability to deliver, the documents show.
“With the assurance of (Iraqi intelligence agency) Mukhabarat... the offer is not a sting operation,” an Iraqi official scrawls in ink in the margin of one of the papers.
Khan's alleged interest in selling nuclear secrets to Hussein has been reported in many books and news articles. An internal Mukhabarat memo that surfaced in the late 1990s discussed a secret proposal by one of Khan’s agents to sell a nuclear weapons design for an advance payment of $5 million.
But the newly uncovered documents suggest Khan’s offer of nuclear assistance was more comprehensive than known. A 1990 letter attributed to one of his business associates offered Iraq a chance to leap past technical hurdles to acquire weapons capability.
“Pakistan had to spend 10 years and $300 million to get it,” begins one of the memos. “Now, with the practical experience and worldwide contacts Pakistan has developed, you could have A.B. in about three years time and by spending about $150 million.” ‘A.B.’ was understood to mean “atomic bomb”, Albright wrote in Peddling Peril: How the Secret Nuclear Trade Arms America's Enemies, released this week.
At the time of the offer, Iraq was embarked in a crash programme to develop N-weapons in the face of a threatened US-led attack over its occupation of Kuwait. By that date, Iraqi scientists had acquired a limited amount of weapons-grade enriched uranium but lacked key components, including a workable design for a small nuclear warhead.
The alleged offer to Iraq is broadly similar to proposals Khan reportedly made to Libya and Iran in the 1980s and 1990s.
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