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Think Tank Report Says Iraq Could Get Nukes in ‘Months’

By Sebastian Rotella

and Janet Stobart
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- LONDON

Iraq needs several years and extensive foreign assistance to develop a nuclear weapon, but it could produce one “in a matter of months” if it acquired raw materials from foreign sources, according to a study released Monday by a British think tank.

Welcomed by British leaders who regard Saddam Hussein as an urgent threat, the report by the respected International Institute of Strategic Studies was a grim portrait of Iraq’s nuclear, biological and chemical weapons capabilities. Nonetheless, the findings were less dire than recent warnings by the British and U.S. governments.

The 74-page dossier examined the risk that U.S. officials have highlighted in recent days: Hussein’s alleged efforts to obtain the fissile material for building a nuclear device.

“While Iraqi acquisition of fissile material on the black market is not a high probability, it has to be seen as a real risk that could dramatically and quickly shift the balance of power,” the study said. Otherwise, it concluded, Iraq would require at least several more years and substantial amounts of foreign materials and equipment to build a nuclear bomb.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is striving to convince dubious Britons of the need to confront Iraq. His government Monday cited the think tank’s assessment as justification for the hard-line stance taken by Blair and the Bush administration.

“The IISS dossier is an impressive chronicle,” said a spokesman for the Foreign Office. “It demonstrates that this [weapons] program continues to this day.”

Nonetheless, defense analysts said that Blair will have to make a more convincing case when he presents an official dossier on Iraq’s arsenal, presumably based on intelligence data unavailable to the think tank, in coming weeks.

Nothing in Monday’s report amounts to compelling justification for an immediate military strike, said Charles Heyman, editor of Jane’s World Armies.

“It said there was no justification now, but further down the line there might be,” Heyman said. “There was nothing startling, no killer facts, nothing which says, ‘This has got to be done now.’ I don’t think the population in the U.K. or the U.S. would want to go to war against Iraq with the evidence we had this morning,” he said.

Research for the study began in June. The authors are former weapons inspectors and military experts who drew on information from U.N. inspectors, Iraqi defectors, declassified CIA and Pentagon reports, and other sources cultivated by the 40-year-old think tank, institute director John Chipman told reporters.

Chipman said his organization did not intend to advocate or oppose military action, but rather wanted to put forward the best available facts.