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Bush-Era Pact Deprived Libya of Key Atomic Tech

(Mar. 1) -Personnel at Libya's Tajura Nuclear Research Center place storage casks on a truck during the removal of Russian-origin highly enriched uranium from the site. A deal with the United States enabled the removal of Libyan nuclear-weapon equipment and fuel years before unrest overtook the North African country this month (U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration photo). (Mar. 1) -Personnel at Libya's Tajura Nuclear Research Center place storage casks on a truck during the removal of Russian-origin highly enriched uranium from the site. A deal with the United States enabled the removal of Libyan nuclear-weapon equipment and fuel years before unrest overtook the North African country this month (U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration photo).

High-level U.S. officials have credited an agreement the Bush administration reached with Libya in 2003 for depriving the North African country's dictator of nuclear weapons technology he might otherwise have tapped in responding to the widespread unrest now threatening his regime, the New York Times reported today (see GSN, Feb. 28).

Muammar Qadhafi's government in early 2004 turned over nuclear-weapon equipment that included a largely complete bomb design and 4,000 uranium enrichment centrifuges capable of generating fissile material. Libya had paid between $100 million and $200 million to obtain the gear from the proliferation network of Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, according to a CIA estimate.

Through Libya had failed to master the equipment's operation, the 2003 deal precluded the possibility of Tripoli harnessing the technology to develop a nuclear weapon or proliferating the materials elsewhere, according to U.S. Defense Department planners and other administration officials.

“Imagine the possible nightmare if we had failed to remove the Libyan nuclear weapons program and their longer-range missile force,” said Robert Joseph, a senior Bush administration nonproliferation official who helped coordinate the agreement's preparation shortly after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq (see GSN, Feb. 17).

“You can’t know for sure how far the Libyan program would have progressed in the last eight years,” Joseph said yesterday, adding “there is no question [Qadhafi] would have used whatever he felt necessary to stay in power.”

Libya's leadership complained in later years it had never received compensation the United States had promised under the arrangement. The Libyan leader's son, Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi, prevented the removal of highly enriched uranium from the country for a period in late 2009 on grounds that Washington had maintained "an embargo on the purchase of lethal equipment," leaked U.S. State Department records quote U.S. Ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz as saying (see GSN, Nov. 28, 2010).

The son insisted his country's agreement to surrender the nuclear gear had been “contingent on ‘compensation’ from the U.S. including the purchase of conventional weapons and nonconventional military equipment,” says a 2009 communication to Washington.

The centrifuges' transfer to the United States was "a big insult to the leader" worsened by the inadequate payment, the son said.

Despite uncertainty over whether Washington had met its half of the bargain, the arrangement eliminated a significant nuclear threat Qadhafi might have unleashed amid his country's current political turmoil, Obama administration officials said.

Libya also agreed to surrender its chemical arsenal under the 2003 deal. The nation retains a quantity of mustard blister agent, but it was uncertain whether the government was capable of dispersing the material.

Thousands of munitions that could have carried the lethal chemical warfare substance "were bulldozed,” former U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration deputy head William Tobey said. Libya's mustard agent is “very difficult to handle and I’m not sure it’s useful,” he added (David Sanger, New York Times, March 1).

The chemical arsenal is "still a concern," even though it needed to be prepared and placed in munitions for deployment, the London Telegraph today quoted a high-level British official as saying. "We want to make sure they're destroyed," the source said (Andrew Hough, London Telegraph, March 1).

The perception of the U.S.-Libyan deal as lopsided might discourage nations such as Iran and North Korea from pursuing similar agreements, according to the Times.

“When [North Korea] collapses -- and one day it will, of course -- we’re going to face a problem that we’ve been spared in Libya,” a high-level South Korean official said on Friday (see related GSN story, today). “You have to bet that the leadership is going to threaten to use its weapons to stay in power. Even if they are bluffing, it’s going to change the entire strategy” (Sanger, New York Times).

The United Kingdom and other Western powers were mulling military options against Qadhafi's government, the Telegraph reported.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said he would not reject "the use of military assets" because the United Kingdom "must not tolerate this regime using military forces against its own people." British and allied aircraft might be called on to enforce a no-fly zone over the country, he said.

The United Kingdom and the United States were also believed to be weighing the possibility of supplying weapons to Libyan opposition forces, according to the newspaper (Hough, London Telegraph).

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This article provides an overview of Libya’s historical and current policies relating to nuclear, chemical, biological and missile proliferation.

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