British Seize Tube They Say Was Intended As Iraqi Weapon
LONDON (AP) _ Customs officers seized a huge forged steel tube ordered by Iraq after military experts determined Thursday that it could be used to build a gun capable of hurling nuclear or chemical warheads hundreds of miles.
Iraq denied the accusation, and the British manufacturer said the tube would blow up if anyone tried to use it as a gun barrel.
Arms experts say a gun with a barrel the size of the tube seized by Customs - 131 feet long with a 39-inch bore - could fire artillery shells as far as Tehran or Tel Aviv, each within 350 miles of Iraq’s borders. Such a weapon would be the longest gun ever made.
″There is no question it could be used as a barrel of a large artillery gun to fire a projectile of some considerable size. It is definitely subject to export licensing controls,″ said Douglas Tweddle, head of the Customs and Excise Office.
On March 28, customs officials seized U.S.-made parts for atomic bomb triggers that were bound for Iraq. Iraq has confirmed it has chemical weapons but denied seeking a nuclear capability.
Last week, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein threatened to use missiles armed with chemical warheads against Israel if Israel attacked his country.
The seizure of the triggers and Iraq’s execution March 15 of a British- based reporter convicted of spying have soured British-Iraqi relations.
″Even if we bought a box of chocolates from Britain, they would say Iraq will use it to produce an atom bomb,″ Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz told reporters in Mosul, Iraq.
″Everything that is said about these pipes is baseless,″ said Naiel Hassan, press attache at the Iraqi Embassy in London. ″The British and the Israelis are trying to make a fuss about this matter. Even the company itself said that these pipes are used for only petrochemical industries.″
The Iraqi government and the reported manufacturer, Sheffield Forgemasters, had insisted the equipment impounded was a pipe designed for a petrochemical plant. The company said the government’s Department of Trade and Industry had reviewed and approved the project.
Phillip Wright, chief executive of Sheffield Forgemasters, said the company had been approached by Iraqis about building gun barrels, but the company refused after consulting the British government.
Customs officials are convinced that the impounded tube is covered by government rules banning the export of certain munitions, Tweddle said.
Britain banned all arms sales to Iraq and its enemy Iran following the outbreak of the eight-year Persian Gulf War. There has been a cease-fire since 1988, but Iran and Iraq are still not officially at peace and the British embargo remains.
″The goods are now seized. Investigations will continue to prove intent and to establish whether offenses have been committed,″ Tweddle said.
The equipment, impounded at the northeastern English port of Middlesbrough Tuesday night, was packed in eight crates and was being loaded aboard a ship chartered by the Iraqi Maritime Organization, Customs officials said.
Wright said the tube seized by Customs could not be used as a gun.
″If they did manage to get all the other necessary components I wouldn’t stand within a mile of the thing if they tried to fire it. It would blow itself to pieces,″ the Sheffield Star newspaper quoted Wright as saying.
Wright said Iraqi officials had approached his company about making gun barrels, but it declined.
″What we made were a series of tubes and they are not like any sort of a gun,″ he said. ″We do make gun barrels and in fact they are immediately recognizable.″
Sheffield Forgemasters confirmed that Customs officers seized company documents Wednesday.
A spokesman for Walter Somers Ltd. in Halesowen, near Birmingham, said Customs officers also seized documents there. The spokesman, who spoke anonymously, said the company produced some steel piping ″of very much smaller dimensions″ for Iraq in 1988 and had no pending orders from the country.
Two weeks ago, Customs officers seized 40 American-made components for nuclear bomb triggers as they were being put aboard an Iraqi Airways flight to Baghdad from London. Five people were arrested; three are facing charges, one was deported and one was released.
Iraq is widely believed to be building a nuclear bomb, and there has been increasing concern about its weapons program.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States was asking the British government for information about the impounding action and would have no comment for the time being.
British news reports speculated that an Iraqi gun project could be linked to Gerald Bull, an American ballistics expert who was killed in Brussels on March 22. Bull, 62, a Canadian-born American citizen, was found shot to death with $20,000 in his pockets, Belgian police said.
Jane’s Defense Weekly said Bull had been a principal designer of South Africa’s G5 howitzers, which have been sold to Iraq. In 1980, he was convicted in Vermont, where he had taught at Norwich University, on charges of smuggling arms to South Africa.