WASHINGTON – A scientist described as the father of Iraq's nuclear weapons program has surrendered in a Middle Eastern country and is being questioned, U.S. officials said Monday.
Jaffar al-Jaffer is believed to know key people and locations of facilities connected to Iraq's nuclear weapons program, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Al-Jaffer fled Iraq for Syria during the war, but then went to another country and turned himself over to authorities in the last few days, officials said. The officials declined to specify what country was holding him.
U.N. inspectors describe the British-educated al-Jaffer as the father of Iraq's nuclear weapons program.
His capture, along with that of Lt. Gen. Amer al-Saadi, Saddam Hussein's alleged point man on various weapons' programs, could provide U.S. officials with a wealth of information on Iraq's chemical, biological, nuclear and long-range missile efforts.
After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Iraq denied it had a nuclear weapons program, but U.N. inspectors determined it was trying to build an atomic bomb. Former inspectors have said Iraq had all the parts and know-how and would have gone nuclear had it not been for the Gulf War.
The United States has insisted that Saddam was rebuilding the program destroyed by inspectors, and intelligence estimates suggested Iraq would have a nuclear weapon within the decade, perhaps within a year if it could acquire weapons-grade plutonium or uranium.
But Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency that led the nuclear weapons inspections in Iraq, said last month there was no evidence to support the U.S. claims.
Iraqi scientists who defected to Western countries say al-Jaffer was jailed and tortured until he agreed in the 1980s to head the program. He eventually became a minister without portfolio in Saddam's Cabinet.
Iraqi officials accused United States officials of encouraging al-Jaffer to defect last May during a stopover in Jordan as he was on his way to U.N. headquarters in New York to meet with weapons inspectors.
He is the second high-level Iraqi scientist reported in custody.
On Saturday, al-Saadi, Saddam's top science adviser, surrendered to U.S. authorities in Baghdad.
U.S. intelligence officials said al-Saadi is believed to know where weapons are hidden, how many were produced and possibly the whereabouts of other weapons scientists.
Al-Saadi has denied that Iraq possesses prohibited chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
Officials said it is too soon to tell whether Jafar and al-Saadi are providing any useful information.