The United States confirmed Friday that Iraq launched a rocket "powerful enough to put a small payload" into space, raising fears the Arab nation has the missile capability to hit Israel or targets farther away.
"I can confirm that the Iraqis have launched a rocket powerful enough to put a small payload into space," said a Pentagon spokesman, Air Force Lt. Cmdr. Rick Oborn. "New data that came in shows the Iraqis launched a rocket."Oborn declined to identify how the United States confirmed the rocket launch, reported by the Baghdad government on Thursday, but it was believed U.S. spy satellites picked up the flash of the rocket as it roared into space.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado tracked an object for "five or six revolutions," a defense official said. But it was not immediately clear whether the object was a separate payload or the last stage of the rocket itself.
U.S. spy satellites designed to provide the earliest warning of a nuclear attack usually pick up the flash of a powerful rocket as it roars from Earth toward space.
The Iraqi government announced Thursday it had launched a 48-ton rocket into space, but said it would use its new capability only for peaceful purposes.
The launch, which could give Iraq the capability for a long-range nuclear warhead delivery system, came nine months after Saudi Arabia denied it was funding an Iraqi nuclear weapons project.
The Saudis, who bankrolled Iraq's bloody 8-year-long war with Iran, said at the time their money would only be used to rebuild an Iraqi nuclear reactor destroyed in a 1981 Israeli air strike. The funding was conditional on Iraq promising the facility was for peaceful purposes only.
Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said, "Such proliferation is a serious and growing concern. The United States believes such proliferation, particularly in tense regions, undermines regional stability and peace.
"We hope that the government of Iraq would exercise caution in its actions in order to not jeopardize its international relationships," Williams said.
In the Iraqi announcement, broadcast over state-run radio, Military Industries Minister Hussein Kamel said: "We achieved a complicated scientific leap on Tuesday when we successfully tested the launching of the three-stage rocket to outer space from the Al Anbar base for Outer Space Research."
Kamel said the rocket was 25 yards long and weighed 48 tons, but gave no further details. The message said the rocket had been made in Iraq.