The U.S. intelligence community fears new reports may indicate Iraq is financing construction of a Scud missile assembly plant in Sudan, enlisting North Korea’s help, ABCNEWS has learned.
Sources say North Korean personnel would build and run the plant, with the assembled Scuds to be held in Sudan for Iraq’s future use — a prospect that worries U.S. officials.
The intelligence community has two separate reports that indicate such a deal is in the works. If they prove true, it raises significant concerns that Saddam Hussein is back in business trying to make Scud missiles, although outside Iraq.
North Korea’s involvement indicates that nation is continuing to sponsor destabilizing missile proliferation deals around the world, even as it publicly claims it is giving up its own missile development program. U.S. intelligence estimates Iraq still has more than two dozen Scud missiles hidden in its desert since Operation Desert Storm 10 years ago.
Rumors of such a deal have been making the rounds among arms dealers and intelligence analysts for months now. But in the last several weeks, the United States has intercepted communications that lend credence to earlier initial reports from an agent for a foreign intelligence service.
Now, the CIA is trying to assess whether the deal has actually been finalized, or alternatively, whether one of the key foreign players is for some reason laying a false paper trail to implicate all three countries.
Three Threats, In the Shadows U.S. officials insist they have not come to a final decision on whether the information is true. But they also note it could be months before they really know for sure. The intelligence they do have in hand is preliminary — it would be some time before an actual factory could be built and missile construction begins. That’s the type of ironclad evidence U.S. intelligence officials would like to see.
But the matter, true or not, underscores just how little U.S. intelligence really knows about current developments in Iraq, North Korea and Sudan. All three countries are perceived as potential threats, but the inner workings of their governments are virtual mysteries to American intelligence.
Reports indicate Iraq may have paid as much as $400 million to build the plant in Sudan. The money would almost certainly come from the $1 billion a year Iraq earns by smuggling oil through the Persian Gulf. Rising world oil prices have recently increased smuggling — and so those revenues have sky rocketed.
Impoverished Sudan may get as much as half of the Iraqi money as a fee for letting the plant be built in their country. North Korea’s motivation also is to earn much needed hard currency. Their Scud missile exporting business remains the country’s top revenue-earner.
Prior Sudanese Collaboration
Lending credibility to the reports of the deal is Sudan’s long history of arms dealings with Iraq. According to U.S. officials, Iraq has used Sudan virtually as an offshore piece of real estate to keep its weapons of mass destruction out of the sight of U.N. weapons inspectors in recent years, and away from potential Allied bombing.
Indeed, U.S. officials had claimed that the Sudanese al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant struck by U.S. Tomahawk missiles in 1998 had ties not only to reputed terrorist Osama bin Laden but to Baghdad as well. The plant’s owner has since filed suit against the United States for damages, claiming no such ties existed.
According to a 1998 report by a Congressional task force on terrorism, Iraq originally transferred some of its Scud missiles to Sudan in 1990 and 1991. In the years since Operation Desert Storm, delegations of Iraqi officials and weapons designers with expertise in nuclear, chemical and biological weapons have frequently traveled to Khartoum.
Less clear is why Iraq would seek a relationship with North Korea. Historically, Iraq’s Scud program has been backed by Russia. However, in recent years the United States has put considerable pressure on Russia to end its relationship with Baghdad — which, officials speculate, could have forced Saddam Hussein to look to North Korea.