(CNN) # The CIA has in its hands the critical parts of a key piece of Iraqi nuclear technology # parts needed to develop a bomb program # that were dug up in a back yard in Baghdad, CNN has learned.
The parts, with accompanying plans, were unearthed by Iraqi scientist Mahdi Obeidi who said he had hidden them under a rose bush in his garden 12 years ago under orders from Qusay Hussein and Saddam Hussein’s then son-in-law, Hussein Kamel.
U.S. officials emphasized this was not evidence Iraq had a nuclear weapon # but it was evidence the Iraqis concealed plans to reconstitute their nuclear program as soon as the world was no longer looking.
The parts and documents Obeidi gave the CIA were shown exclusively to CNN at CIA headquarters in Virginia.
Obeidi told CNN the parts of a gas centrifuge system for enriching uranium were part of a highly sophisticated system he was ordered to hide to be ready to rebuild the bomb program.
“I have very important things at my disposal that I have been ordered to have, to keep, and I’ve kept them, and I don’t want this to proliferate, because of its potential consequences if it falls in the hands of tyrants, in the hands of dictators or of terrorists,” said Obeidi, who has been taken out of Iraq with the help of the U.S. government.
Obeidi also said he was not the only scientist ordered to hide that type of equipment.
“I think there may be more than three other copies. And I think it is quite important to look at this list so they will not fall into the hands of the wrong people,” he said.
Centrifuges are drums or cylinders that spin at high speed and separate heavy and light molecules, allowing increasingly enriched uranium to be drawn off.
David Kay, who led three U.N. arms inspection missions in Iraq in 1991-92 and now heads the CIA’s search for unconventional weapons, started work two days ago in Baghdad. CNN spoke to him about the case over a secure teleconferencing line.
“It begins to tell us how huge our job is,” Kay said. “Remember, his material was buried in a barrel behind his house in a rose garden.
“There’s no way that that would have been discovered by normal international inspections. I couldn’t have done it. My successors couldn’t have done it.”
Kay said he had mixed emotions when he saw the centrifuge components: “It was a realization that I hadn’t gotten all the parts [of Iraq’s nuclear program]. So there was a moment of regret, but there was also an exhilaration that now maybe we have a chance to take this to the very bottom.”
CNN learned of the discovery last week but made a decision to withhold the story at the request of the U.S. government, which cited safety and national security concerns.
The U.S. government told CNN the security and safety issues have been dealt with and there is no risk now in telling the story fully.
The gas centrifuge equipment dates to Iraq’s pre-1991 efforts to build nuclear weapons.
Experts said the documents and pieces Obeidi gave the United States were the critical information and parts to restart a nuclear weapons program, and would have saved Saddam’s regime several years and as much as hundreds of millions of dollars for research.
David Albright, who was a U.N. nuclear weapons inspector in Iraq in the 1990s, said inspectors “understood that Iraq probably hid centrifuge documents, may have had components, and so it is very important that those items be found.”
“What it is that Obeidi was ordered to keep was all the information and some centrifuge components, so that if he was given the order, he could restart the centrifuge program,” said Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington.
“In a sense, the program was in hibernation. He was the key to the restart of this centrifuge program, and he never got the order. So in that sense it doesn’t show at all that Iraq had a nuclear program. And Obeidi told me that he never worked on a nuclear program after 1991.”
Obeidi said he felt unsafe in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion and that he was getting pressure from different corners of the country.
He also said other Iraqi scientists were watching to see if he was safe after he cooperated with the U.S. government.
Now that he and his family are safely out of Iraq, Obeidi said he believes other scientists would come forward with other components of Iraq’s weapons program.
Before the Iraq war, U.S. officials said Iraq tried to purchase aluminum tubes that could be used in centrifuges that enrich uranium.
In his March 7 presentation to the U.N. Security Council, however, International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Mohamed ElBaradei said there was no evidence “Iraq intended to use these 81-millimeter tubes for any project other than the reverse engineering of rockets.”
U.S. officials, including President Bush, also had cited British intelligence documents indicating Iraq may have tried to buy 500 tons of uranium from Niger, but the IAEA said the documents were obvious fakes.