West tries to shield companies that made a monster of Baghdad

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IT IS a monster that has been fed by Western firms. Some 150 companies, mostly in Europe, the United States and Japan, have provided components and know-how needed by Saddam Hussein to build atomic bombs and chemical and biological weapons.

The Iraqi dossier delivered to the UN and chief weapons inspector Hans Blix adds up to the most comprehensive list so far of companies involved.

Iraq’s report says that equipment was sent by more than 80 German companies, 24 American, and 17 British, as well as by a number of Swiss, Japanese, Italian, French, Swedish and Brazilian firms. It says that more than 30 countries supplied equipment for its nuclear programme alone.

The activities of the British companies all took place before Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, according to the dossier. But it says that some German companies have co-operated with Iraq more recently. Russian and Chinese companies have also moved in as more Western companies have accepted the ban and steered clear of Iraq.

Some of the names of the foreign companies that helped Iraq have been known for some time. Others are new.

Since the Gulf war of 1991 dozens of companies have either admitted to sales or have been prosecuted in Europe for helping arm Iraq.

Other sales listed in the Iraqi dossier have been legal and often made with the knowledge of governments before sales to Iraq were banned. Between 1985 and 1990 the US Commerce Department, for instance, licensed $1.5bn (960m) of sales of technology which had military potential for Iraq.

A central difficulty with the Iraqi document concerns dual use technology. Iraq is allowed to import medical equipment, and in 1998 it ordered six ‘lithotripter’ machines, which are used to treat kidney stones. Each machine requires an electronic switch. The same switch can also be used to trigger atomic bombs.

Iraq could also convert its plants for building short-range missiles constructed with foreign help and permitted under UN resolutions, into plants for producing longer-range ones, which are forbidden.

Then there are questions over what Iraq has tried to buy. According to a recent British government dossier, Iraq has continued its nuclear shopping efforts. Since 1998, the dossier says, Iraq has tried to buy "significant quantities of uranium" in Africa, although it has no peaceful use for it.

Both the US and the UN are trying to keep the names of Iraq’s foreign suppliers secret, and large parts of the document have been excised in advance of copies being handed to the non-permanent members of the Security Council.

The US and the UN both argue that they need the co-operation of companies in providing details of Iraq’s non-military purchases, which could have dual use. If companies were named and shamed all cooperation would cease. But already the secrets are leaking out. Much information was published last week in the left-wing German newspaper, Die Tageszeitung. More is sure to follow.