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Totally tubular

By Jackson Murphy
web posted February 3, 2003

During last week's State of the Union address President Bush reiterated the administrations contention about the significance of 'aluminum tubes' to the Iraqi nuclear weapon program.

The aluminum tubes were actually first highlighted by Bush in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly last fall. Iraq had attempted to buy thousands of these aluminum tubes for the purposes of enriching uranium. In fact the Iraqis have made a strange cottage industry in trying to obtain these mysterious tubes. In 2001 a shipment of 60,000 aluminum tubes made it as far as Jordan before being stopped. It was National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice who enforced and repeated the claim stating that the tubes are, "only really suited for nuclear weapons programs."

According to Bush in the State of the Union, the basic evidentiary case goes like this: "The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed in the 1990s that Saddam Hussein had an advanced nuclear weapons development program, had a design for a nuclear weapon and was working on five different methods of enriching uranium for a bomb."

Then Bush forcefully dangles a few pieces of intelligence: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

And finally the key point is this: "Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production."

That's a simple, cut and dry argument right? Not so fast, argues Salon's Joe Conason. He called Bush's reference to the aluminum tubes this way. "Doesn't anybody compile a news digest in the White House these days?" asks Conason. "Does the president get a copy? It's good use of taxpayer's dollar because it prevents credibility-busting gaffes like last night's reference" to the tubes.

For Conason the idea of the aluminum tubes is neatly answered by the International Atomic Energy Agency. "According to [Mohammed] ElBaradie, who heads the IAEA, the tubes 'can not be used' for the purposes of enriching Uranium."

But a Washington Post article by Jody Warrick published just days before the speech quoted an expert who disagrees. "It may be technically possible that the tubes could be used to enrich uranium. But you'd have to believe that Iraq deliberately ordered the wrong stock and intended to spend a great deal of time and money reworking each piece."

A CIA report based on the size of the tubes in question said, "A few tens of thousands of centrifuges would be capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a couple of weapons per year." There is a rift in intelligence on the issue-with some analysts believing that the tubes could be modified, while others are not convinced.

And the Associated Press reported that, "the top nuclear inspector conceded that aluminum tubes the Iraqis had sought for rockets could be modified for a nuclear program."

That top nuclear inspector would know, wouldn't he? This news story also takes pains to stress the belief of ElBaradei who claimed that the Iraqis were being very cooperative-something even Hans Blix has been hard pressed to suggest. But ElBaradei is also of the belief that any weapons inspectors "could be fooled."

So it is possible and given the Iraqis preoccupation with importing thousands of these tubes, perhaps importing ones that wouldn't obviously be used for a nuclear program might be more easily brought into the country. Or maybe Saddam just likes aluminum tubes.

Even Iraq admits to trying to import the tubes. CNN's Christiane Amanpour reported in December that, "Iraq, during meetings with U.N. weapons inspectors in Baghdad two weeks ago, did admit to having tried to import aluminum tubes." Amanpour went on to say that this in itself would be a violation of the existing sanctions imposed by the United Nations.

Apparently Iraq told the weapons inspectors that the tubes were only designed to be incorporated in the nation's conventional rocket program. And everyone knows they don't lie. It comes down to a game of who do you trust? Do you trust the Iraqis who have systematically tried to cover up, or worse deny, their nuclear weapons ambitions? Do you trust Joe Conason who takes the talking points of a man willing to trust the Iraqis? Or do you trust the Bush administration that probably has more intelligence and may well share it in the coming week?

Again the burden of proof should not be coming from the Bush administration. It should be coming from Saddam Hussein and Iraq. Whether or not Iraq has aluminum tubes for uranium enrichment or conventional weapons is not the question. Truthfully either reason is equally disastrous. To come to a truthful conclusion on the aluminum tube debate we're going to have to cut out the meddlesome Iraqi government. Give war a chance and we will know for sure.

Jackson Murphy is a commentator from Vancouver, Canada. He is the editor of "Dispatches" a website that serves up political commentary 24-7. You can contact him at jacksonmurphy@telus.net.

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