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If Ariel Sharon has one good reason not to get entangled in a confrontation with the United States administration at this time, it lies in a meeting that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein held last week with his nuclear scientists. In the meeting, the existence of which the Iraqi regime saw fit to make public, Saddam asked the scientists to accelerate their work "with the goal of defending Iraq." In the light of the fact that the experts whom Saddam convened in Baghdad are the same people who, on the eve of the Gulf War, were just months away from completing the construction of a nuclear weapon and given the fact that there has been no international supervision of the nuclear sphere in Iraq for the past three and a half years, Israel's paramount wish must be an American offensive against Iraq. Any Israeli action that delays the implementation of Washington's plan or brings about its cancelation is liable to cause Israel incalculable strategic damage.

Unfortunately, the report of the Iraqi leader's meeting with his nuclear scientists was lost amid the plethora of reports about the war being waged by the Israel Defense Forces in the territories and thus failed to get the attention it deserved. This seems to have been the first time that Saddam Hussein has admitted the existence of a project to develop nuclear weapons, and certainly the first time he has indicted that it is a priority goal of his regime. "We preferred you to the others," Saddam told the scientists. If the Bush administration was looking for the ultimate rationale for attacking Iraq, Saddam handed it to him in the form of his remarks to the scientists, as reported by the Baghdad daily Al-Hayat.

If Central Intelligence Director George Tenet stated in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last month that the United States now believes Saddam Hussein has never abandoned his project to develop nuclear arms, Saddam himself has now admitted that the project is at the top of his country's list of priorities.

Iraq lacks fissionable materials to complete the project. The know-how needed to manufacture the bomb is, for the most part, available and it is likely that in the past three years the nuclear facilities that were destroyed in the Gulf War have been repaired and rebuilt. The major problem in relating to the Iraqi nuclear program is lack of information. The Western intelligence services have no solid information about the progress being made by the Iraqi scientists who are involved in the project. A large portion of the activity in the nuclear sphere is being conducted in underground facilities, thus ruling out photography by even the most advanced spy satellites. The Iraqis are masters of concealment. We should always remember that before the Gulf War not one intelligence organization succeeded in exposing Iraq's nuclear program, even though it encompassed dozens of sites and employed tens of thousands of people, and Iraqi emissaries purchased equipment worth hundreds of millions of dollars in every part of the world.

The Americans, and not only them, are trying to monitor the attempts to smuggle nuclear materials, but no one can know which fissionable materials have made their way to Baghdad. The estimates of experts in the West concerning the time frame in which Iraq will complete its development of the bomb range from two to five years. But everything depends on how successful Iraq will be in getting its hands on the required materials. The absence of proper supervisory means in Russia, the dire economic situation of the nuclear scientists of the former Soviet Union, the ludicrous salaries of Russian officers who are responsible for the stockpiles of nuclear materials, combined with Saddam Hussein's huge motivation to buy those materials all make it likely that sooner or later the Iraqis will obtain the enriched uranium or plutonium they need.

In the meantime, Saddam is succeeding with the use of guile and the aid of France and Russia in generating delays in the discussions about sending United Nations inspectors to Iraq. Security Council Resolution 1248 states that a new group of inspectors will be formed (known by the acronym UNMOVIC: United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission), which will make its way to Iraq immediately to continue the inspection of the sites at which Iraq is suspected of producing weapons of mass destruction. More than two years have passed since that resolution was adopted, but Saddam is still able to make a mockery of the great powers and the UN secretary-general by constantly putting forward new demands as the terms of his agreement for the commission to enter Iraq.

This is the background to the decision by the Bush administration to include Iraq in the "axis of evil" and for its assertion that it has reached the conclusion that "Saddam Hussein has to go." The view in Washington is that a Saddam Hussein in possession of nuclear arms poses a genuine danger to the free world. The administration experts also understand there is not much time left to implement the plan to topple the Iraqi leader's regime. The considerations guiding the U.S. will undergo a substantive change if it emerges that Iraq has nuclear weapons. Even if there are only a few such weapons, the attack plans now being drawn up in Washington will change. This is why the United States is so concerned about the IDF's activity in the territories, which is bringing about Arab unity centering on the Palestinian question and is, among other results, making it impossible for Washington to cobble together a coalition, however loose, of states in the region that will support an operation against Iraq.

A Saddam Hussein with his finger on the nuclear button is a clear and present danger to Israel. Therefore, if the chance exists that U.S. military activity will put an end to his regime and bring about the annihilation of Iraq's nuclear development program, Israel must do everything to support and aid such a program. This must be one of the major considerations of the prime minister in deciding whether to agree to the administration's request that the IDF withdraw from all parts of Area A (under full Palestinian control). Unfortunately, as a New York Times columnist wrote, the road to Baghdad runs through Jerusalem.