BEIRUT, Lebanon – Iraq was three years away from producing a nuclear bomb before the 1991 Gulf War, the No. 2 Iraqi scientist on the secret atomic program said Tuesday, offering a rare insider's assessment.
Noman Saad Eddin al-Noaimi (search), a former director-general of Iraq's nuclear program, told The Associated Press the Iraqis were able to produce less than 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of highly enriched uranium before the program was halted. It is estimated that a bomb would require at least 10 kilograms.
"Producing the appropriate amount would have required at least two more years, under normal circumstances," he said. "Putting that substance into a weapon could have taken an additional year," he said on the sidelines of a Beirut meeting on the repercussions of the Iraq invasion.
Al-Noaimi had worked with Jafar Dhia Jafar (search), the father of Iraq's nuclear-bomb program, and the two co-authored a paper on the subject, which they presented at the conference on Monday.
David Albright, an American nuclear expert and former U.N. inspector during the 1990s, said the three-year timeframe was "plausible" for the part of the nuclear program that Jafar was working on at the time.
Before the first Gulf War, Iraq's nuclear program was divided into a crash program to build a bomb and an indigenous effort to enrich uranium for use in atomic weapons — the program that Jafar was involved in.
In a 1997 review, the International Atomic Energy Agency (search) said the 1990 Iraqi "crash program" had set a target to build a bomb in 1991. But the agency said there was no evidence the Iraqis, by the time of their Gulf War defeat in February 1991, had produced more than a "few grams" of highly enriched uranium. The Vienna-based agency considers 25 kilograms a standard minimum for a rudimentary bomb.
The IAEA hasn't said how close Iraq came to building a nuclear bomb, but its Web site notes there were "indications that, by January 1991, Iraq had not overcome all the steps needed to produce a nuclear weapon."
The IAEA said there was no evidence Iraq had produced or clandestinely acquired weapons-grade nuclear material. It noted, however, Iraq had "achieved many major steps on the way to a nuclear weapon."
Al-Noaimi, who retired in the late '90s, said other scientists may have different estimates on how close Saddam Hussein was to having a nuclear bomb.
"This is my personal estimation. Others could be more optimistic or more pessimistic, but my personal assessment is that we were two to three years away from that, if everything went according to the required level and speed," he said.
In their paper, Al-Noaimi and Jafar declared that most Iraqi nuclear facilities were damaged or destroyed in the 1991 U.S.-led Gulf war. They said scientists, engineers and technicians involved in the program dispersed after the war and the program was dismantled on Saddam's orders.
Iraq, which lost the 1991 war to a U.S.-led international military coalition that ousted Saddam's forces from Kuwait, had to throw open its doors to U.N. inspectors charged with destroying Baghdad's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and the programs to develop them.
Al-Noaimi and Jafar said Iraq never revived its nuclear weapons program.
A British intelligence dossier made public in September 2002, as U.S. and British leaders were building their case for another war against Iraq, maintained that if U.N. sanctions against Iraq were lifted, Saddam could develop a nuclear weapon in one to two years.
However, the International Atomic Energy Agency has said Iraq's nuclear program was in disarray before last year's war and was unlikely to be able to support any active effort to build atomic weapons.