WASHINGTON – Iraq could have a nuclear weapon by 2010 and meanwhile is bolstering its stockpile of chemical and biological weapons, U.S. intelligence agencies report.
The report, issued Friday by CIA officials, said the most pressing threat appears to be from Iraq's expanding biological weapons program, which relies on hard-to-find mobile production facilities. Iraq's arsenal includes anthrax, it said.
In addition, "if left unchecked, it probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade," said the report, "Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs." The United States groups nuclear, chemical, biological and radiological weapons under the heading "weapons of mass destruction."
The unclassified report contains some of the U.S. government's most specific claims about Iraq's weapons programs since 1998, when U.N. inspectors were forced out of Iraq.
Those programs are Bush administration's chief complaint as it threatens war against Iraq. The report comes at the height of an international debate on the danger posed by the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and what should be done about it.
Iraq maintains it destroyed all of its weapons, saying it has complied with all U.N. resolutions since the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War.
In particular, the report says Saddam's nuclear program remains stymied by his inability to obtain enriched uranium or plutonium that could be used in weapons.
If Baghdad is able to covertly acquire pre-made weapons material from overseas, Iraq could have a nuclear weapon within a year, the report said. Otherwise, Iraq will have to make its own.
The report cites Saddam's efforts to secretly acquire high-strength aluminum tubes that could be used in centrifuges for a uranium-enrichment program. Intelligence officials have said several shipments of tubes have been stopped before reaching Iraq.
The report does note a minority of intelligence analysts believes the tubes are for conventional weapons, not a nuclear program.
However, it said, Iraq "may have acquired enrichment capabilities that could shorten substantially the amount of time necessary to make a nuclear weapon," suggesting that some shipments of tubes may have reached Iraq.
The report, which officials described as an amalgam of information and analysis from various U.S. intelligence agencies, contains many of the same conclusions as a classified National Intelligence Estimate provided to lawmakers earlier this week.
On Friday, CIA Director George J. Tenet and other agency officials held closed-door discussions with members of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Iraqi weapons programs. Earlier in the week, some Democratic senators had criticized the agency for holding back information on Iraq.
Intelligence officials said the report was released to inform the public and give government officials guidelines on what U.S. intelligence on Iraq is safe to discuss in open forums.
But after meeting with Tenet, one senator said the report doesn't tell the whole story. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said some information that could weaken the administration's case against Iraq remains classified.
"It is troubling to have classified information which contradicts statements made by the administration," he said. "It is maddening to have classified information which contradicts classified information leaked by the administration."
But Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., said he believed intelligence officials were "giving us the vast majority of what they know."
"They're giving us their best judgment, the facts that they have," he said. "But one of the difficulties in addressing this whole issue is that there is just a lot that is unknown and unknowable."
Some senators said they would push for the release of more information. CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield said, "We are going to do our very best to accommodate their request."
The report's authors addressed Saddam's capabilities but made no allegations that he intends to use these weapons against U.S. interests. As an intelligence document, it did not recommend any particular U.S. course of action.
The greatest current threat appears to be from Saddam's biological weapons programs, including anthrax and ricin toxin, the report suggested.
Iraq's ability to produce the agents has grown in the last decade, despite sanctions, U.S. bombing and U.N. inspections. These weapons can be delivered by bombs, missiles, aerial sprayers and covert operatives, "potentially against the U.S. homeland," the report said.
Saddam's missiles can reach his neighbors, but not the United States or Western Europe, it said.
Baghdad has also renewed production of several chemical agents, probably including mustard, sarin, cyclosarin and VX, the report said. While mustard is a World War I-era blister agent, sarin, cyclosarin and VX are extremely deadly nerve agents.
Saddam probably has stockpiled between 110 and 550 tons of chemical weapons, the report says. However, Iraq's ability to produce and store chemical weapons is probably less than it was before the Gulf War, thanks to inspections, the report said.
Iraq has been able to pay for these programs with money diverted from humanitarian aid programs and from oil smuggling, it said.