WASHINGTON – A former director of Iraq's nuclear weapons program warned lawmakers Wednesday that if the United States does not topple Saddam Hussein immediately, the Iraqi dictator will possess three nuclear missiles by 2005.
American-educated Dr. Khidir Hamza, who defected from Iraq in 1995 after serving as the Iraqi dictator's top official for nuclear weapons development, told a bipartisan task force that his estimation was a conservative one.
"When I left, we designed one missile," and were acquiring the materials from foreign stockpiles to build it, Hamza said, adding that the U.N. weapons inspections that ended in 1998 were the only measures that ever put a dent in Saddam's plans.
While Saddam's nuclear program was still in the development stages at the time weapons inspectors arrived on the scene, Saddam had already used biological and chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers in the 1980s and Iraq's own Kurdish civilians, Hamza told the bicameral Bipartisan Task Force on Nonproliferation.
As Hamza described a violent and paranoid leader who would set off on drunken binges and hysterical rages, lawmakers in the House Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday passed a resolution — now headed to a full House vote — that demands that Iraq allow "immediate, unconditional and unrestricted access" to its weapons programs.
Any refusal, according to the measure, "presents a mounting threat to the United States, its allies and international peace and security."
The resolution followed President Bush's recent threat warning Saddam to open his country to weapons inspectors or find out the hard way the consequences of refusal.
The focus on Iraq picked up clarity in recent weeks as congressional leaders urged President Bush to make the despotic nation the next target in the war on terror. Several lawmakers have also asked Bush to release $10 million in appropriated funds to Iraq's parliament-in-exile, the Iraqi National Congress.
The Bush administration is moving cautiously, however, saying that only loose connections have been made tying Saddam's regime to the Sept. 11 attacks, and allies are uneasy about taking him down.
Hamza said the longer the United States plays softball with Saddam, the more time he has to work on his nuclear weapons program.
Hamza suggested that a small U.S. force similar to that in Afghanistan today could encourage anti-regime factions, as well as disloyal Iraqi soldiers, to defect and bring down the dictator. He said dropping bombs strategically on Baghdad would help smoke Saddam out.
Asked if Hamza's story compelled him to push for the topple of the regime, task force co-chair Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said he wanted to be sure that if the United States were to move into Iraq, its mission would be strategically sound.
"I don't think there's a debate about whether or not to take out Saddam Hussein — I think if any member of Congress had a magic wand they would eliminate him immediately," he said. "The question is whether we have the military capacity to undertake that and to manage it if a civil war were to break out. We're trying to determine that by listening to the experts."