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The Myth of Iraq's Nuclear Capability

An Iraqi scientist who worked on Iraq's nuclear weapons program shows why Bush's claims are just wishful thinking.
 
 
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As the war storm against Iraq swirls and gathers momentum, seeded by the efforts of the American and British governments, serious doubts arise as to the credibility of their intelligence sources, particularly the issue of Iraq's nuclear capability. It has been often noted that reliable intelligence on this matter is not immediately forthcoming. Moreover, such intelligence as has been presented is spurious and often contradictory. Perhaps it is not too late to rectify this misinformation campaign.

I worked with the Iraqi nuclear program from 1968 until my departure from Iraq in late 1998. Having been closely involved in most of the major nuclear activities of that program, from the Russian research reactor in the late 60s to the French research reactors in the late 70s, the Russian nuclear power program in the early 80s, the nuclear weapons program during the 80s and finally the confrontations with U.N. inspection teams in the 90s, it behooves me to admit that I find present allegations about Iraq's nuclear capability, as continuously advanced by the Americans and the British, to be ridiculous.

Let us go back to 1991. A week before the cessation of two-month saturation bombings on the target-rich Iraq, the Americans realized that a certain complex of buildings in Tarmiah, that had just been carpet-bombed for lack of any other remaining prominent targets, exhibited unusual swarming activity by rescuers the next morning. When they compared the photographs of that complex with other standing structures in Iraq, they were surprised to find an exact replica of that complex in the north of Iraq, near Sharqat, which was nearing completion. They directed their bombers to demolish the northern complex a few days before the end of hostilities. My family, along with the families of most prominent Iraqi nuclear scientists and the top management of the northern complex, were residing in the housing complex. The Tarmiah and Sharqat complexes were designed for housing the Calutron separators, similar to those used by the American Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic bombs that were dropped by the Americans on Japan.

At the end of 1991, after that infamous U.N. inspector, David Kay, got hold of many of the nuclear weapons program's reports (reports whose maintenance and security I had been in charge of), the Americans realized that their saturation bombing had missed a most important complex of buildings: that complex at Al-Atheer, which was the center for the design and assembly of the nuclear bomb. A lone, single bomb, thermally guided, had hit the electric substation outside the perimeter of the complex, causing little damage.

The glaring and revealing detail about these two events is the utter lack of any intelligence about these building complexes -- information that should have caused the repository of American and British intelligence to overflow. That is to say American and British intelligence had no idea of the programs that those buildings harbored -- programs that had been ongoing at full steam for the previous 10 years!

What really happened to Iraq's nuclear weapon program after the 1991 war?

Immediately after the cessation of hostilities, the entire organization that was responsible for the nuclear weapons project turned its attention to the reconstruction of the heavily damaged oil refineries, electric power stations, and telephone exchange buildings. The combined expertise of the several thousand scientific, engineering, and technical cadres manifested itself in the restoration of the oil, electric and communication infrastructure in a matter of months -- an impressive accomplishment, by any measure.

Then the U.N. inspectors were ushered in. The senior scientists and engineers among the nuclear cadre were instructed many times on how to cooperate with the inspectors. We were also asked to hand in to our own officials any reports or incriminating evidence, with heavy penalties (up to the death penalty, in some cases) for failing to do so. In the first few months, the "clean sheets" were hung up for all to see.

As the scientific questioning mounted, our scientists began to redirect the questioners to the actual technical documents themselves that had been amassed during the 10 years of activity. These documents had been traveling up and down and throughout Iraq in a welded train car. Then the order was issued to return the project's documents to their original location. At that point, David Kay pounced on them in the early morning hours of September 1991. Among the documents were those of Al-Atheer and the bomb specifics.

In the following few years, the nuclear weapons project organization was slowly disbanded. By 1994, its various departments were either elevated to independent civilian industrial enterprises, or absorbed within the Military Industrial Authority under Hussain Kamil, who later escaped to Jordan in 1996 and then returned to Baghdad where he was murdered.

Meanwhile, the brinksmanship with the U.N. inspectors continued. At one heated encounter, an American inspector remarked that the nuclear scientists and engineers were still around, and hinted accusingly that those scientists and engineers may be readily used for a rejuvenated nuclear program. The retort was, "What do you want us to do to satisfy you? Ask them to commit suicide?"

In 1994, a report surfaced claiming that Iraq was still manufacturing a nuclear bomb and had been working on it since 1991. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors brought the report to Baghdad, demanding a full explanation. The inspectors requested my opinion on the authenticity of the report, since I was the responsible agent for the proper issuance and archiving of all scientific and engineering documents for the nuclear weapons project during 1982.

It was my opinion that the report was well done, and most probably had been written by someone who had detailed knowledge of the established documentation procedures. However, as we pointed out to the IAEA inspectors, certain words used in the report would not normally be used by us but rather by Iranians and we supplied an Arabic-Iranian dictionary to verify our findings. The IAEA inspectors never referred back to that report.

During these years, crushing economic inflation was growing. It would spell the end for most of the Iraqi nuclear scientists' and engineers' careers in the following years.

In 1996, Hussain Kamil, who was in charge of the entire range of chemical, biological and nuclear programs, announced from his self-imposed exile in Amman that there were hidden caches of important documentation on his farm in Iraq. (Apparently, he had had his security entourage stealthily salvage what they thought were the most important pieces of information and documentation in these programs.) The U.N. inspectors pounced on this and a renewed string of confrontations occurred, until the inspectors were asked to leave Iraq in 1998.

In the last few years of the 90s, we did our utmost to produce a satisfying report to the IAEA inspectors concerning the entire gamut of Iraq's nuclear activities. The IAEA finally issued its report in October 1997, mapping these activities in great detail. The inspectors raised vague, "politically correct" queries which seemed obligatory in their intent.

In the meantime, the economic standing of the Iraqi nuclear scientists and engineers (along with the rest of the civil servants and the professional middle-class) has been pathetically reduced to poverty level. Even with occasional salary inducements and some insubstantial benefits, many of those highly educated persons have been forced to sell their possessions just to keep their families alive. Needless to say, their spirits are very low and their cynicism is high.

Relatively few have managed to leave Iraq. The majority are too gripped by poverty, family needs, and fear of the brutal retaliation of the security apparatus to even consider a plan of escape. Their former determination and drive, profoundly evident in the 80s, has been crushed by harsh economic realities; their knowledge and experience grow rusty with the passage of time; their skills atrophy from lack of activity in their fields.

Since my departure from Iraq in late 1998, one cannot help but notice the mien of those former nuclear scientists and engineers as being but a wispy phantom of a once elite cadre representing the zenith of scientific and technical thought in Iraq. Pathetic shadows of their former selves, the overwhelming fear that haunts them is the fear of retirement, with a whopping pension that equates to about $2 a month.

Yet, the American and British intelligence community, obviously influenced by the war agenda, vainly attempts to continue to provide disinformation. For example, a consignment of aluminum pipes (the intelligence experts opine) might conceivably be used in the construction of highly advanced, "kilometers long" centrifugal spinners. The consideration that there are no remaining Iraqi personnel qualified to implement and maintain these supposed spinners seems to have eluded the intelligence agencies' reports.

Last month, a group of journalists was taken on a guided tour of a "possible" uranium extraction plant in Akashat in western Iraq. The Iraqi guide pointed to the obviously demolished buildings and asked tongue-in-cheek, "Who would make any use of these ruins? Maybe your experts would tell us how."

It is true that the Iraqi nuclear scientists and engineers did not commit suicide. But for all the remaining capability they possess to rebuild a nuclear weapons program, they may as well have.

Imad Khadduri worked with the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission from 1968 until 1998. He was able to leave Iraq in late 1998 with his family. He now teaches and works as a network administrator in Toronto, Canada.