Russia's nuclear arsenal gives Saddam the means for revenge

Two years ago 120 highly sophisticated gyroscopes used for missile guidance were discovered in Jordan on their way to Iraq. Patrick Cockburn reports on new revelations that they were stolen from Russian intercontinental missiles, once housed in nuclear submarines, and why Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, wanted to buy them.
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The Independent Online
A week ago a UN surveillance helicopter looking for evidence of chemical and biological weapons in Iraq tried to overfly a military barracks in the city of Tikrit, north of Baghdad. As it approached the site an Iraqi official on board suddenly released his seat belt, grabbed the UN photographer to prevent him taking pictures and assaulted the pilot.

The co-pilot of the helicopter eventually wrestled the official back into his seat, but the UN says the scuffle delayed its inspection of the site. By the time the UN team was finally able to start its investigation on the ground, there were signs that the Iraqis had used the delay to remove the documents the inspectors were after.

Six years after the Gulf war, Saddam Hussein is still trying to preserve the remnants of his programme to develop weapons of mass destruction - nuclear, chemical and biological - and the means to fire them with a long- range missile at one of his numerous enemies.

The most compelling evidence for an on-going missile programme was the discovery at Amman airport in November 1995 of 120 missile-guidance packages which could only be used in long-range missiles.

Now Andrew and Leslie Cockburn, in a book entitled One Point Safe, an investigation of theft and smuggling from the Russian arsenal, have traced how they got there. The missile-guidance systems - Iraq later admitted to importing a further 30 gyroscopes which it at first tried to conceal by dumping them in the river Tigris - came from Russian SS-18 missiles, formerly in nuclear submarines, which were being broken up at a plant north of Moscow under the Start-1 arms-control treaty.

According to Rolf Ekeus, head of the UN Special Commission in charge of stripping Iraq of weapons of mass destruction until June, and his staff, the missile-guidance packages - each consists of two gyroscopes and an accelerometer for accurate targeting - were bought for $2m (pounds 1.17m) by Iraq through an Iraqi middleman named Wi'am Gharbiyya.

The purchase was authorised by a secret Iraqi agency in charge of covert weapons procurement headed by Qusai, Saddam Hussein's younger son, who is also in overall charge of the Iraqi security services. Dr Ekeus, now Swedish ambassador in Washington, says that after investigating the sale of the gyroscopes, he was worried by what else Russia might sell Iraq. "What Iraq needs is not much," he said. "They'd be happy with twenty kilos [of bomb-grade uranium]. If they could get a hundred kilos - wonderful - that would be five [nuclear] devices."

Surprisingly, Iraq, under pressure to explain the source of the gyroscopes, allowed Nikita Smidovich, a Russian military specialist working for the UN, to interview Mr Gharbiyya, the middleman in the purchase of the gyroscopes, in Baghdad.

Mr Smidovich, formerly in charge of chemical and biological weapons affairs in the Soviet foreign ministry, believed they must have come through the black market, because ragged wires on the gyro head indicated that they had been roughly torn out of a missile. To be used again the guidance packages would require sophisticated rewiring.

Mr Gharbiyya, in his early thirties and fluent in English, cheerfully admitted that he had made several trips to Russia between 1993 and the end of 1995. He showed Mr Smidovich his Jordanian passport with Russian stamps in it. But when asked about the gyroscopes he imported he has a bland explanation, which even Iraqi security cannot have expected Mr Smidovich to accept. He said he had made "a mistake". Ignorant of missile technology, he had simply bought the wrong goods.

A year ago General Wafiq al-Sammarai, the former head of Iraqi military intelligence, told the Independent that Iraq was concealing more weapons than the UN realised. He said: "I believe there are 40 missiles and 255 containers of biological and chemical weapons." He said the information came from a source close to Qusai. The UN inspectors say they have information that, contrary to Mr Gharbiyya's protestations, his shopping- list in Moscow was provided by Dr Modher Sadiq Saba, the chief Iraqi missile designer.

A mysterious feature of the gyroscopes is that they are not appropriate to the Scuds which Iraq fired at Israel and Saudi Arabia during the Gulf war - and which were surprisingly accurate. They could only be used in a longer-range missile. Immediately after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 Iraq started a crash programme to build a new missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, but, says Dr Ekeus, "there was not enough time".