As of August 2006, Iraq Watch is no longer being updated.
Click here for more information.
INSIDE SADDAM'S SECRET NUCLEAR PROGRAM
By Khidhir Hamza
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 54, No. 5
A senior Iraqi scientist tells how Saddam Hussein, in a decades-long quest for the bomb, systematically hoodwinked the IAEA.
In the early 1970s, Saddam Hussein, then Iraq's vice president and vice chairman of the ruling Revolutionary Council, ordered the development of a clandestine nuclear weapons program. I was one of those who initiated the program.
The plan's long-range objective was to produce nuclear weapons, but the immediate objective was to acquire nuclear technology. To achieve that goal, the manipulation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was key. The elaborate plan of deception that gradually evolved included the signing of nuclear cooperation treaties with friendly states and the invention of bogus projects.
Iraq had impeccable credentials for receiving nuclear assistance. It had signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968 and ratified it in 1969. That made our nuclear-power cover stories internationally acceptable and justified our major nuclear purchases with the full backing of the IAEA.
Over the years, I had many roles. I was chief of the fuel division in the 1970s, head of the theoretical division of the enrichment program in the 1980s, scientific adviser to the chairman of the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) in the mid-1980s, and--for a brief period in 1987--director of weaponization.
It was never smooth sailing, and after the Persian Gulf War, I grew disenchanted with the regime. In 1994 I decided to leave Iraq. Not allowed to leave legally, I had to follow a circuitous route that led through several countries. And for reasons that are still unclear, in April 1995 the Sunday Times of London published an erroneous story reporting that I had been killed by the Iraqi intelligence service after sneaking out secret documents exposing Iraq's reconstituted nuclear weapon program.
After that report appeared, I moved to the United States, where I now live. I write this now to highlight the long history of Iraq's nuclear weapon program and my past involvement in that program, and to describe how Iraq hoodwinked the IAEA during the 1970s and 1980s.
The chicken farm
Since the end of the Gulf War in 1991, the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) and the International Atomic Energy Agency Action Team have spent tens of thousands of man-hours deciphering the secrets of Iraq's clandestine nuclear weapons program and dismantling its components.
The Action Team eventually came to a pretty thorough understanding of the program, which was far-reaching and well funded. But an important controversy remains about when the weapons program was created, and by whom.
Until 1995, Iraq denied having had any serious intention of building nuclear weapons, despite abundant evidence to the contrary uncovered by Action Team investigations. Then, after Hussein Kamel, Saddam's son-in-law and head of the Ministry of Industry and Military Industrialization, defected in August 1995, his revelations about the scope and intensity of the nuclear weapons program threatened the credibility of the government's denial.
In response to Kamel's defection, the Iraqi government produced the so-called "chicken farm documents." Several days after Kamel fled to Jordan, senior UNSCOM and Action Team officials were taken to Kamel's farm, where a half-million-page cache of documents was stashed in a shed. The documents shed light on extensive programs to develop and build weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons.
The Iraqi government said it had not made a decision to manufacture nuclear weapons. The government said, in effect, that it had been duped--that Kamel had developed these programs without authorization and had hidden the incriminating evidence at his farm.
To complete the scenario, a new story was concocted as to how the nuclear program started. This story was even included in Iraq's so-called "Full, Final, and Complete Document" on its weapons programs, submitted in several versions in 1996 to the Action Team. In its briefest form, the new story went like this:
In 1987 Gen. Hussein Kamel visited the Iraqi Atomic Energy Establishment (AEE) and asked if there were any plans to develop a nuclear device. Learning there were not, he ordered the preparation of a report outlining the requirements for developing a device.
This scenario gave the impression--reinforced by the Iraqi media--that Kamel had acted on his own, without Saddam's approval. Otherwise, why would he hide the documents on his personal property?
Later, Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz insinuated that Kamel had tried to restart the nuclear weapons program on his own after the Gulf War, in violation of the cease-fire agreement. Although no one bought that story (at least in private), it was one more effort to exonerate the Iraqi government from any nuclear wrongdoing before or after the Gulf War.
But the idea that a program employing thousands of scientists, engineers, technicians, and support staff, involving major facilities, and costing billions of dollars could have been carried out without Saddam Hussein's knowledge is absurd on its face--although it is the kind of diplomatic fiction that may eventually make it easier for the Security Council to lift sanctions against Iraq.
The truth is that the nuclear-weapons program started much earlier than most people realize--and on the direct orders of Saddam Hussein.
An unasked question
In 1971, Iraq's nuclear research program had been under way for a few years but was poorly funded. The IAEC, which was replaced in the mid-1980s by a cabinet-level agency, was then a small department within the Ministry of Higher Education. It had made little headway. The work, considered a low priority, was almost at a standstill.
In my early 30s, I was the chairman of the physics department of the Nuclear Research Center, located at Al-Tuwaitha, 20 miles south of Baghdad. My salary was $150 a month, about a tenth of what I had made a few years earlier, teaching in the United States.
Much of our equipment had been obtained through assistance programs underwritten by the IAEA. As for our own government's contributions, we didn't even get enough money to attend scientific conferences.
One day in late 1971, I was approached by the two men in charge of the IAEC, Moyesser Al-Mallah and Husham Sharif, both of whom were U.S.-educated and old and trusted members of the ruling Ba'ath party. They explained that as long as our objectives were peaceful, the government would provide little support. They said we needed to attract the attention of Saddam Hussein, a fast-rising star in the government, and that we could do so only by adopting a strategic objective--that is, we should propose a bomb program based on first acquiring a civil fuel cycle followed by a full-blown program to build nuclear weapons.
I was naïve in those days. I recall thinking that proposing a bomb program was a gambit. I thought the plan, if carefully worded, would bring in money without our having to make a full commitment to producing a bomb, at least in the near future. We could fool Saddam; we would maneuver him into sending money our way, but we would escape close scrutiny. I later learned that few people were able to fool Saddam, and I came to realize that Saddam probably initiated the program in the first place.
After a review of our 50-page proposal by a group affiliated with the Revolutionary Council, Saddam accepted the plan. Iraq's president at the time was A. Al-Bakr, an army officer with little interest in the daily affairs of government. Saddam dominated planning and follow-up.
Acquiring nuclear technology within the IAEA safeguards system was the first step in establishing the infrastructure necessary to develop nuclear weapons. In 1973, we decided to acquire a 40-megawatt research reactor, a fuel-manufacturing plant, and nuclear fuel-reprocessing facilities, all under cover of acquiring the expertise needed to eventually build and operate nuclear power plants and produce and recycle nuclear fuel. Our hidden agenda was to clandestinely develop the expertise and infrastructure needed to produce weapon-grade plutonium.
As it turned out, few of Iraq's suppliers--or the IAEA itself--ever bothered to ask a simple question: Why would Iraq, with the second largest oil reserves in the world, want to generate electricity by burning uranium? For its part, Iraq was careful to avoid raising IAEA suspicions; an elaborate strategy was gradually developed to deceive and manipulate the agency.
A seat on the board
A two-man Iraqi delegation--Al-Mallah, who was then secretary general of the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission, and I--attended the IAEA's annual General Conference in September 1973. Our post-conference report, sent directly to Saddam, described the IAEA and its role in implementing safeguards and providing nuclear assistance.
It was clear from the IAEA charter and many of its publications that, rhetoric aside, the IAEA served the interests of the nuclear weapon states. Under President Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" program, and later under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the IAEA was described as an organization that would facilitate the transfer of nuclear technology to nations that agreed not to use that technology to develop nuclear weapons.
In turn, the nuclear weapon states had pledged to reduce their inventories of nuclear weapons and to help transfer peaceful nuclear technology to the "have-not" states. The IAEA's role was to verify that the non-nuclear weapon states were using nuclear technology strictly for peaceful purposes.
Our examination of the IAEA's budget revealed that the agency's main role was to conduct inspections. Member contributions for the inspection program were mandatory; contributions for technical assistance programs were voluntary.
This signaled only one thing: that the IAEA's primary role was as a watchdog. As for the nuclear powers actually reducing their arsenals, few believed reductions were possible in the political climate of the 1970s.
To Iraq, signing the NPT meant acceding to the wishes of the nuclear weapon states and receiving only marginal technical assistance in return. Our report on the Vienna meeting concluded that the IAEA's chief activity was spying for the nuclear weapon states.
After studying our report, Saddam issued new orders: There would be no requests for IAEA assistance that concerned personnel--that is, we would not ask for IAEA help in attending conferences or in training or in buying equipment. Meanwhile, we would sharply limit our requests for IAEA consultation; close contact might reveal sensitive information.
Our report included a summary of the IAEA's organizational structure, noting that the nuclear powers retained permanent seats on the Board of Governors, with a portion of the remaining seats open for election every year at the general conference. Saddam wanted to increase Iraq's participation in the agency, mainly to penetrate this "intelligence-gathering organization." We decided to seek a seat on the board.
When our delegation arrived in Vienna for the 1974 general conference, we learned that the Iraqi embassy was not prepared to carry out Saddam's orders. No effort had been made to win votes--in fact, Iraq's candidacy had not even been announced.
Iraq's ambassador to Austria, who was the official representative to the IAEA and automatically the head of the Iraqi delegation, was immediately sent into retirement. Other embassy staff members were transferred to less desirable locations. After that, the embassy expedited atomic energy matters.
Despite the late start, Hisham Al-Shawi, minister of higher education, was elected to the board. After the conference, however, Saddam took control, transferring the Atomic Energy Commission to the Revolutionary Council and appointing himself its chair, an appointment that was never disclosed to the IAEA.
Gaining a seat on the board was only a preliminary step. To get better access to the inner workings of the IAEA, the position of "scientific attaché" was created at the embassy in Vienna. Suroor Mahmoud Mirza, a brother of Saddam's senior bodyguard, was appointed to this position.
With his winning ways and generous budget, Mahmoud quickly became a popular figure among IAEA employees and other delegations, who remained ignorant of his underlying purpose. Mahmoud succeeded so well that he remained in Vienna for nearly 10 years. He lost his job in the late 1980s, when his brother fell out of favor with Saddam.
Mahmoud provided detailed reports on many subjects not covered in open publications--including the role of inspectors in uncovering clandestine programs, how information given to inspectors was controlled, and how limited their leverage was. He also realized the importance of having Iraqis work as inspectors to gain a more complete understanding of inspection procedures and processes. Most important of all, he alerted us to the success of satellite remote sensing in uncovering clandestine, and especially underground, activities. As a result, Iraq built no underground facilities.
New ground rules
Saddam's orders limiting interaction with the IAEA were not well understood at home. Although the IAEA offered little technical assistance, the agency provided long-term training opportunities for Iraqi scientists and helped to place them in other nuclear-related organizations. The IAEA was able to open doors that had previously been closed.
At home, many Iraqi scientists found the security mode instituted by the IAEC particularly repugnant. It included a vast increase in security personnel. Foreigners--including Arabs-- were no longer welcome. Saddam's new deputy, Dr. Abdul-Razzaq Al-Hashimi, ordered Iraqis married to foreign wives to divorce them. In many cases these men preferred to leave the country instead. Morale deteriorated.
Saddam had to act. In late 1974, two day-long meetings were held at the Presidential Palace Conference Hall. Any encounter with Saddam was problematic. He could be charming and you could get what you wanted. Or he could be cruel and unreasonable, as many found to their regret.
In these two meetings, we met the charming Saddam. Even as he paced the conference hall in an elegant French suit, he apologized to his audience for pacing. It was doctor's orders, he explained. He needed to walk because of back problems.
When one IAEC employee complained about some problem he was having with his boss, Saddam simply laughed and ordered him to see him later so they could solve the problem. A woman who complained about being harassed by her landlord was relocated to a government housing project. Many people had money problems, which they voiced later in private meetings; some of these problems were resolved with cash on the spot. In short, the meetings convinced atomic energy personnel that they were very important to the government.
The first day of the meeting was with senior staff--about 20 people. The next day there was a general meeting with many more of the agency's employees, which numbered about 200 at the time. Saddam laid down the rules employees were to follow from then on:
All foreigners, including those representing international organizations, should be thought of as spies. Foreigners might appear friendly and helpful, but they were really trying to gain your confidence in an effort to discover what you were doing. Contacts with foreigners were to be limited, and each contact had to be reported in detail.
Each member of the IAEC had to be security-conscious. A scientist or engineer who was not security-conscious was useless, dangerous, and not wanted.
Scientists and engineers should not divulge what they knew to outsiders; in fact, they should try to appear less knowledgeable than they were.
These were the directions of the most powerful man in the country, and they were phenomenally effective. Unauthorized contacts with foreigners became the equivalent of treason. An Office of Policy and International Relations was created within the IAEC, and all foreign contacts, including technical assistance and inspections, had to go through this office.
But within the new ground rules, Iraq could receive more IAEA technical assistance. For instance, the Soviet-provided research reactor was upgraded from two to five megawatts/thermal, and there were consultations about the possible future purchase of a power reactor. If the IAEA did not have to be involved, it was excluded.
Abdul-Wahid Al-Saji, a mild mannered physicist, became the first Iraqi to serve as an IAEA inspector. He was replaced in the late 1980s by Abdul-Wahab Al-Hani.
Ironically, the understanding that gradually emerged from a closer relationship to the IAEA was how weak and easily manipulated the agency was. With little leverage on member states, inspectors were in a difficult position. If an inspector wrote about a suspicious activity in the state he visited, and if it leaked out (which was often the case), the inspector could be denied future access to that state. Further, according to Al-Saji and Mahmoud, if an inspector gained a reputation as antagonistic or aggressive, few states would allow him to inspect their facilities.
Overall, the IAEA proved extremely useful to the Iraqi weapons program in obtaining nuclear technology. The agency accepted Iraq's importation of highly enriched uranium fuel for its research reactor, without evaluating the possibility that Iraq might divert it to military use. Much later, in 1987, I was instructed by Hussein Kamel, then my boss, to keep open the option of diverting the safeguarded fuel in case the clandestine enrichment programs failed. After Kamel's defection, Iraq revealed to the Action Team that it had initiated a crash program after the invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. (This program, aimed at making an atomic bomb from the safeguarded highly enriched uranium, failed.)
The IAEA accepted and promoted power reactor programs in both Iraq and Iran--two oil-rich countries with high military expenditures, centuries-old antagonisms, and many possibilities for conflict. Under cover of safeguarded civil nuclear programs, Iraq managed to purchase the basic components of plutonium production, with full training included, despite the risk that the technology could be replicated or misused.
Iraq took full advantage of the IAEA's recommendation in the mid-1980s to start a plasma physics program for "peaceful" fusion research. We thought that buying a plasma focus device, which operates in the nanosecond range, and which requires ultrafast electronic components, would provide an excellent cover for buying and learning about fast-electronics technology, which could be used to trigger atomic bombs. We even considered the plasma focus device as a possible neutron initiator for a bomb, but abandoned that approach when we discovered how unreliable the system was for producing neutrons. In any case, IAEA personnel brokered the purchase of the system together with the necessary training.
To be fair, the IAEA personnel had no expertise in making nuclear weapons. They simply viewed plasma focus research as a cheaper and more readily available alternative to building a tokomak, a fusion-research device that was far too expensive for most countries.
Iraq built a number of new buildings at Al-Tuwaitha that were dedicated to developing ways to produce bomb-grade uranium. These new buildings--constructed in the early and mid-1980s--housed the research and development phases of both the electromagnetic isotopic separation (EMIS) and gaseous diffusion enrichment programs. The diffusion program, which lasted from 1982 to at least mid-1987, occupied three large buildings. Several other buildings housed the EMIS research and development program.
Many researchers and administrators in the enrichment program objected to putting the covert enrichment program at Al-Tuwaitha, a declared site that was regularly inspected by the IAEA. The Israeli bombing of the French-built Osirak reactor in June 1981 and the subsequent media discussions about the Iraqi nuclear program also showed that Tuwaitha was under close scrutiny.
The Israelis had already complained in 1981 about the huge conglomeration of buildings at Al-Tuwaitha, as revealed in a 1982 book describing the bombing, Two Minutes Over Baghdad. To add more buildings and work on the early stages of a nuclear weapons program in an area where IAEA inspectors had access struck most of us as the ultimate folly. But the program's top administrators knew better. They had come to understand how poorly the IAEA system worked.
In any event, the head of the research and development division, Jaafar D. Jaafar, wanted the projects located at Tuwaitha for the sake of convenience, and the chair of the Atomic Energy Commission, Humam Al-Ghafoor, simply did not want the bother and logistical problems of managing several sites. (When Hussein Kamel was put in charge of the clandestine nuclear program in 1987, he ordered additional buildings to be located outside Tuwaitha.)
Tuwaitha had 100-foot-high berms, and IAEA inspectors were carefully escorted along pre-designated paths that did not expose the new buildings. Questions by inquisitive inspectors were answered carefully to avoid revealing new information. Iraqi authorities spent considerable time before each inspection rehearsing answers to possible questions and planning the routes of the inspections. The IAEA never learned about many of the buildings at Tuwaitha until after the Persian Gulf War, when for the first time it received aerial photos of the site.
Some of the EMIS developmental activities were housed inside the same buildings that were inspected by the IAEA. Important research on ion sources--the heart of the EMIS program, because intense ionized uranium beams are essential for producing highly enriched uranium--was conducted in the fuel-manufacturing building, which had been supplied by an Italian firm and was under IAEA safeguards. Under the old IAEA inspection rules, however, the IAEA could inspect only certain rooms. The ion research activities took place in rooms where inspectors were not allowed. To avoid risk of discovery, workers were told to stay out of the building or remain behind locked doors during an inspection.
Asleep at the switch
By any estimate, Al-Tuwaitha must have housed thousands of technical people. Yet for two decades, only a handful of scientific articles were published by those working at this huge complex. We worried about how this would look to the IAEA or to foreign intelligence organizations. But to our relief, no one ever raised questions about the lack of publications by Al-Tuwaitha's scientists.
The research center was carrying out Saddam's original orders, and it permitted only a few publications. Jaafar, for example, had 32 publications listed on his resume when he returned to Iraq in 1974, most of which he wrote during a four-year period in the early 1970s when he worked at cern, the European accelerator center in Switzerland. From the time he returned to Iraq in 1974 through the Gulf War in 1991, he published only two or three additional articles.
Despite the size of the Iraqi program, it had only a dozen or so scientists and engineers who were in a position to plan and implement nuclear projects. Without these key people, the nuclear program could not have existed. Before the Gulf War, the IAEA had no idea who they were or what they did, nor did Western intelligence agencies seem to have much interest. More than 400 Iraqis were trained in France and Italy during the late 1970s, yet none of them reported being approached about what they were doing. Nearly all the current leaders of the program were drawn from those trainees.
Most surprising to the Iraqi scientists after the Gulf War was how little was known about them, especially among UNSCOM and IAEA Action Team personnel who were supposed to uncover the nuclear program.
Iraqi scientists found it unbelievable that IAEA member states did not share critical intelligence about Iraq before the Gulf War. Iraq's scientific attaché at IAEA headquarters in Vienna regularly sent back all published IAEA reports concerning Iraq's nuclear activities, including video clips. In 1989, an article in Der Spiegel detailed the participation of German nationals in Iraq's centrifuge program. Still the IAEA voiced no concern about a possible secret enrichment program.
The only explanation my colleagues and I could imagine was that the major powers did not think the IAEA could be trusted with intelligence information because of its reputation for leaks. But more important, the agency's safeguards division showed little willingness to follow up on leads, even if it obtained provocative information. This situation has improved markedly since the embarrassment of uncovering Iraq's clandestine program. The new safeguards system that has grown out of the "93+2 program," set up in 1993 to overcome past failings, is capable of detecting future Iraqs. But if the old IAEA safeguards culture prevails, the new system will not be a match for a determined and untiring Saddam or other proliferators.
The road to the United States
Working for Saddam proved to be nerve-wracking and thankless. Terror tactics were his favored means of control. Since Saddam became president in 1979, the country has lived in a constant state of war. As the system turned more cynical, it became unbearable. Everyone was treated as a possible defector.
Since 1981 Iraq has prevented workers in the nuclear program from traveling outside the country with their families. Scientists and engineers were conscripted into the program without their consent. The program had many disgruntled employees and many personnel problems. One worker defected in 1991. Two of the program's leaders, Jaafar and Dr. Hussein Al-Sharistani, were thrown in jail in late 1979 and early 1980 with no official reason given. My colleagues and I believed the reason was that they did not cooperate adequately with the bomb program. Jaafar was released after 20 months, but only after he agreed to take charge of the clandestine uranium enrichment program. Except for an escorted trip to the Soviet Union, he was never permitted to leave the country.
The Gulf War was the last straw. Living conditions and security deteriorated to a degree that made life in Iraq a living hell. Many of the country's intelligentsia and professional class left by any means they could. Many of those lucky enough to be outside the country during the war, including several ambassadors, simply did not return. One of them was the ex-chairman of the IAEC, Dr. Al-Shawi, Iraq's ambassador to Britain and later to Canada. In a press conference in 1993 he and another ambassador asked for the overthrow of Saddam's regime. It was in 1994, after the brutal and bizarre murder of a chief procurement officer near my farm, that I decided to leave.
The problem with trying to learn the truth about the Iraqi nuclear weapons program is the complete secrecy and the security measures that surround it. The movements of insiders, including members of their families, are restricted, and breaking the rules can be a death sentence. Muayad Naji, a centrifuge program worker, left Iraq without authorization in 1992. He was shot down by Iraqi intelligence agents on a street in Amman, Jordan, in front of his wife and children. People who knew him reported that all he wanted was to go to Libya for a teaching job.
Some are luckier or do better planning. An electrical engineer who defected after the war in 1991 was instrumental in uncovering important EMIS sites. He was careful to smuggle his family out with him.
When the fact that I had left the country was publicly reported in the April 2, 1995 edition of the Sunday Times of London, the Iraqi government was not worried because my family remained in Iraq (see "Reports of His Death Were Greatly Exaggerated," page 30). The government even covered for me by saying that I was on a business trip.
When my family managed to slip out of the country, however--and after the defection of Kamel four months later--the situation changed. Kamel's name and mine are the only names that appear in Iraq's "Full, Final, and Complete Declaration," where we are accused of having essentially created the weaponization program on our own.
After two disastrous wars and the large-scale massacre of Kurds and Shiites, the criminal nature of the Iraqi regime is internationally recognized. (Kamel described one massacre--in which 4,600 were killed because of a rumor--in a September 21, 1995 interview broadcast on CNN.) What is not recognized by the world community, though, is the determination with which the regime of Saddam Hussein intends to pursue programs to produce weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, once sanctions are lifted. The nuclear weapons group is still in place; the expertise is still there; and Saddam Hussein and his colleagues are well practiced in the arts of deception.
Reprinted by permission of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, copyright 2001 by the Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science, 6042 South Kimbark, Chicago, Illinois 60637, USA. A one year subscription is $28.
As of August 2006, Iraq Watch is no longer being updated. Click here for more information.
Copyright © 2000-2006