Iraq Closer to Nuclear Weapons, Rumsfeld Says

ByABC News via logo

Sept. 9, 2002 -- Iraq already possesses a threatening cache of chemical and biological weapons and is getting "closer every day" to obtaining nuclear weapons, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told Good Morning America today.

Rumsfeld said it was not known or even "knowable," if Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had managed to obtain nuclear weapons, since weapons inspectors have not been allowed into the country for years.

"What is knowable is the appetite [Saddam] has for them, and the aggressive manner he's going about trying to acquire the pieces that are necessary for the nuclear weapon," Rumsfeld said in an interview conducted at the Pentagon. "They are getting closer every day, every week, every month. Time is not on your side."

But Iraq's vice president denied that his country was trying to collect nuclear material or build up sites that U.N. weapons inspectors used to visit before being ordered out of the country. Taha Yassin Ramadan, speaking to reporters in Baghdad Sunday, charged that the United States and Britain were seeking an excuse to attack Iraq.

"They are telling lies and lies to make others believe them," Ramadan said.

President Bush says he has made no decision about taking action in Iraq, though on Thursday he plans to go to the United Nations to impress upon members what he says is the need for the United States to take action regarding Iraq.

"The president has said that the one thing that is not acceptable is to do nothing," Rumsfeld told GMA. "It seems to me that it's best to wait and see what he proposes."

The decision on whether to go to war with Iraq has not been made, he said.

‘A Terrorist Country’

Prior to the Gulf War, the best estimates were that Saddam would have a nuclear weapon within two to six years. But after the war ended, the U.S. learned that he appeared to be even closer: within six to 12 months of having a nuclear weapon, the defense secretary said.

However, if America was to take military action in Iraq, Rumsfeld said he did not think the possibility of the country having nuclear weapons would be "the basis" for such action.

"It seems to me what you've got is a terrorist country that has weapons of mass destruction already," Rumsfeld said. "He certainly has chemical and biological weapons. There's just no question about that. He has used chemical weapons against his own people. He's used them against his neighbors."

Meanwhile, a leading think tank warned today that Iraq could assemble a nuclear weapon within months if it could obtain radioactive material.

John Chipman, author of a study on Saddam's weapons of mass destruction program, said the Iraqi leader was trying to build nuclear weapons. He said the Iraqis were also developing machines to make nuclear material for weapons, but would need assistance and material from foreign sources to build a nuclear bomb soon.

‘This Is Self-Defense’

Asked if there would be "direct evidence," along the lines of the satellite photos presented by former President John F. Kennedy of Soviet missiles on Cuban soil, Rumsfeld said the idea of direct evidence suggested that Iraq would be punished for doing something wrong.

"That really isn't the case here," he said. "This is self-defense. The United States' task is to see that we don't allow an event to happen, that then one has to punish someone for."

The evidence is there for the president to consider, he said.

"The thing today is to connect the dots before weapons of mass destruction are used against the West," he said.

The official U.S. policy on Iraq has been to support a regime change that would remove Saddam from office. Even if Saddam's weapons development programs were demolished, that would still be the goal, Rumsfeld said.

While no one expects Saddam to step aside, Rumsfeld said it wouldn't be impossible.

"You never know. There are a lot of dictators living in various countries around the world in quite quiet splendor and you don't hear much about them," Rumsfeld said. "They are there."

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