VIENNA - Iraq never revived its secret nuclear weapons program after it was dismantled by U.N. inspectors in the 1990s, a senior Iraqi scientist at Iraq's new Ministry of Science and Technology said Tuesday.
Before launching the war to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the United States and Britain said Saddam was trying to develop an atomic bomb and other weapons of mass destruction -- a key justification for the U.S.-led invasion.
U.N. inspectors found no evidence of this during four months of inspections before the war. Since major military action ended in Iraq on May 1, U.S. and British military have still found no proof Saddam had nuclear, chemical or biological arms.
"I think even the inspectors when they went there, they knew...what the activity was there. And you know it (a nuclear weapons program) is very sophisticated," said Dr Abbas Balasem, director general of the HAZMAT (hazardous materials) section of the Ministry of Science and Technology.
"Biological weapons or chemical weapons -- you can do something in this area. But in the nuclear area, you need a reactor, for example. So it was difficult for Iraq to restart it again," Balasem told Reuters in an interview.
Before the war, Balasem worked for the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission. According to the Foundation of American Scientists' Web site, the commission "had established a large, secure and highly successful procurement network in support of its uranium enrichment and planned weaponization efforts."
Asked if he believed the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) assertion it had successfully dismantled Iraq's ambitious atomic weapons program in the seven years after detecting it in 1991, Balasem said: "I think this is true."
Balasem said Iraqi nuclear scientists now intended to use their knowledge and skill solely for peaceful purposes.
"The plan of the new ministry is to use all the activities for the peaceful use, and just to leave all of this previous program behind," he said, referring to Saddam's nuclear weapons program. "They want to use all the facilities for rebuilding Iraq, for the reconstruction..."
Balasem also dismissed fears that highly radioactive sources had been looted from Iraq's nuclear facilities during the war.
In April, radioactive materials were stolen from nuclear sites, including the country's biggest facility -- the Tuwaitha nuclear research complex outside Baghdad -- raising fears that the looted materials could pose health and security risks.
The IAEA was afraid that highly radioactive nuclear sources were among the missing materials and that they could be used in a dirty bomb -- a conventional bomb laced with radioactive material.
But Balasem said it was impossible for these to be stolen.
"These can't be looted," he said. "They are shielded with a very secure shield. They are very heavy. They (the looters) were not organized criminals... They were simple people looking for computers or anything they could get."
"The sophisticated materials are secure and closed," he said, adding that the looters did not get into the area where dangerous materials were stored.
© Copyright 2003 Reuters Ltd