The United States last week delivered a secret ultimatum to Baghdad, a warning not to use non-conventional weapons on any account in the coming conflict. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources have learned that a secret high-level emissary entered Iraq under cover to put Baghdad on notice that if non-conventional weapons were wielded by Iraq, the US would not hesitate to level its cities with a nuclear bomb.
Washington acted after discovering that Iraq had smuggled two or three nuclear devices at least into the United States for detonation by sleeper cells planted by Iraqi intelligence.
The American ultimatum included a demand for accurate information forthwith on:
— The location of these sleeper terrorist cells wherever they are planted, whether in the United States, Israel or anywhere else in the world – and the sites where the nuclear devices are hidden.
–The whereabouts of terrorists and radiological weapons heading for the United States or any other targeted country.
— The terrorist cells armed with orders to set off a biological weapon, especially one containing anthrax, smallpox or a chemical weapon such as nerve gas
The US officials impressed on their Iraqi counterparts that any attempt to withhold even a smidgen of vital information would result in Washington making good on its threat.
US vice president Dick Cheney, alluding to this threat in an appearance on NBC TV, warned Iraq against deploying “a single weapons system”, when he really meant a single terrorist.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report the United States took the unusual and politically risky course of dispatching a special envoy to Baghdad, where he could have been in harm’s way, on following intelligence information that came in from the joint headquarters of US and Russian special forces in Moscow. Since August 21, this command center has been overseeing a manhunt in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan for a squad of Iraqi agents. (See item on nuclear hunt for Iraqi agents, DEBKA-Net-Weekly 74, August 23).
The original presumption of intelligence officials at the headquarters was that the Iraqi teams were sent to buy enriched Uranium-235 to boost Iraq’s nuclear stockpile. But early last week, this evaluation was ditched in favor of another: that the Iraqis were sent to take possession of complete nuclear weapons systems already purchased by Baghdad.
Iraqi officials professed innocence to the American emissary, assuring him they had no intention of using any nuclear device as a terrorist or military weapon. Their stock of weapons of mass destruction, they said, was meant to protect Iraq from a non-conventional weapons attack by Israel or Iran.
Iraq admitted obliquely for the first time that it has the bomb. But when the US emissary brought up the nuclear manhunt now under way, his Iraqi interlocutors clammed up.
The White House, Pentagon and CIA no longer doubt that Iraq has joined the nuclear club. Nonetheless, the US administration continues to insist publicly that it has no idea if Baghdad has the bomb and refers to 1998 intelligence assessments that Saddam Hussein is six months away from building an atomic device.
US and Israeli intelligence believe Iraq has between seven and 12 atomic bombs, and at least 15 to 40 nuclear shells of various sizes. Iraq also has five to eight cannon capable of firing the nuclear-tipped shells to a distance of hundreds of miles.