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Iraq's Al Samoud missile too easily boosted for U.N. inspectors

WASHINGTON—The Al Samoud, the short-range missile whose destruction the United Nations is demanding, does not pose a major immediate threat to American forces or neighboring countries, U.S. military analysts say.

But it could be developed into a longer-range weapon that could reach Israel and Turkey, and that is the motivation behind the destruction ordered by chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, analysts say.

In ordering the destruction of Iraq's estimated 50-to-100 Al Samoud missiles, Blix noted that the rocket is capable of traveling 120 miles, farther than the 93-mile limit imposed on Iraq after the Gulf War.

"The real problem with Al Samoud isn't the missile's marginal violation on United Nations restrictions," said Loren Thompson, an analyst with the Arlington, Va.-based Lexington Institute think tank, "but the fact it is part of a far larger program to acquire long-range methods of attacking neighbors with weapons of mass destruction."

"If Iraq were to fully realize its goals for that program, it would acquire a fearsome capability that would largely nullify the U.S. military advantage," Thompson said.

"As a one-stage regular old missile the Al Samoud doesn't pose a tremendous military threat," noted Timothy V. McCarthy, a former U.N. missile inspector now at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. "The purpose of this missile is to be used as a second-stage missile."

As a two-stage missile, the Al Samoud could travel more than 600 miles, within striking range of most of Turkey, the Gulf down to the Straits of Hormuz and all of Israel, said Richard Speier, a former Pentagon official specializing in missile nonproliferation.

It will take some time before Iraqi scientists can develop the technology to turn the Al Samoud into a two-stage missile, a process that involves installing one missile on top of another. "To go from here to there is not an insignificant battle," McCarthy said.

There have been signs that Iraq has been working from the beginning to make a more powerful Al Samoud. After Iraq began to develop the missile after the Gulf War in 1991, inspectors rejected the original design because it would carry so much fuel that it would exceed the range limit.

But over the last several years, the Iraqis began to build the Al Samoud 2, which can hold even more fuel than the original design, McCarthy said.

McCarthy and other former U.N. inspectors still have major concerns that Iraq has an arsenal of SCUD missiles and other long-range missiles, he said.

The Iraqis have other surface-to-surface missiles that pose a threat to U.S. forces. U.S. warplanes twice earlier this month bombed launching sites for Ababil-100 rockets near Iraq's southern border with Kuwait.

The Ababils are believed to have the same range as the Al Samouds, but use solid propellants that make it easier to store, move and fire.

U.S. and British warplanes bombed two Ababil-100 batteries Feb. 11 and 12 deployed near the southern Iraqi city of Basra, within range of Kuwait and the U.S. troops massing on its northern desert for a possible attack.

The Ababil-100—its smaller version is known as Ababil-50—is capable of carrying 600 pounds of explosives or 300 anti-tank bomblets and may be able to deliver chemical warheads, according to U.S. media reports.

They are fired from trucks mounted with four launchers, which can be moved and re-loaded in a short time, but there have been no reports on their accuracy. Iraq's long-range SCUD missiles were notoriously imprecise during the Gulf War in 1991.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE GRAPHICS on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064):

A KRT graphic, file name 20030213 Al Samoud, is available.