Some of the missiles undoubtedly aimed at U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia are guided by systems developed with sophisticated electronics equipment sold to Iraq by American companies with the blessing of the U.S. government, weapons experts said Sunday.
During the past six years, the U.S. government has permitted a steady flow to Iraq of high-technology devices with both commercial and military applications. The policy was part of the U.S. tilt toward Iraq during Baghdad's eight-year war with Iran. Only recently, and some say belatedly, has the Bush Administration tried to slow the export of high-tech goods to Baghdad.
According to interviews with experts, this dual-use equipment has played a significant role in the buildup of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's war machine. The technology includes mainframe computers used to design advanced missile systems and high-speed oscilloscopes vital to developing accurate guidance systems for both conventional and nuclear-armed missiles.
"We have been shortsighted and imprudent in what we have sent them," said Gary Milhollin, director of the University of Wisconsin's Project on Nuclear Arms Control in Washington.
The sales have occurred with assistance from both the Commerce Department and State Department, sometimes over the objections of the Pentagon.
A senior U.S. official said the Commerce Department's export-licensing office was ordered last March to review dual-use technology that had been approved for sale to Iraq by U.S. manufacturers. The official said the review covered such items as electronics equipment that could be used in weapons tests, sophisticated computers and electronic components.
All items that could have had a military use were put on hold, despite protests by the State Department, which complained about the singling out of Iraq, said the official, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.
The review was launched after American and British law enforcement authorities stopped what they said was an attempt to smuggle to Iraq electronic devices used to trigger nuclear weapons.
Last month, the White House moved to block, at least temporarily, the shipment of three advanced industrial furnaces to Iraq because of worries that they could be used on projects related to nuclear weapons.
A former Pentagon official said U.S. military experts suspect the furnaces were destined for use in casting titanium and other exotic metals for ballistic missiles and possibly nuclear weapons.