The war storm swirled by the American and British governments against Iraq, particularly the issue of Iraq’s nuclear capability, raises serious doubts about the credibility of their intelligence sources as well as their non-scientific and threadbare interpretation of that information. It is often stated that lack of inside information on this matter is scarce. Perhaps it is not too late to rectify this misinformation campaign.
I worked with the Iraqi nuclear program from 1968 till my departure from Iraq in late 1998. Having been closely involved in most of the major nuclear activities of that program, be it the Russian research reactor in the late sixties, the French research reactors in the late seventies, the Russian nuclear power program in the early eighties, the nuclear weapon program during the eighties and finally the confrontations with U.N. inspection teams in the nineties, it behooves me that I may ridicule the American and British present allegations about Iraq’s nuclear capability.
It would be interesting to start my discourse at 1991. A week before the cessation of a two month saturation bombings on the target-rich Iraq, it came to the attention of the Americans that a certain complex of buildings, in Tarmiah, that was 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 that 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, were residing in the housing complex of that complex. These two complexes were designed for the Calutron separators, the method used by the American Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic weapons that were dropped by the Americans on Japan.
At the end of 1991, and after that infamous U.N. inspector David Kay got hold of many of the nuclear weapon program’s reports, whose documentation and hiding I was in charge of till the start of the war, did the Americans realize that their saturated bombing had also missed a most important complex of buildings, at Al-Atheer, that was the center for the design and assembly of the nuclear bomb. A mere one bomb, thermally guided, had hit the electric substation outside the perimeter of the complex, causing little damage.
The telling revelation about these two events is the dearth of any information, till 1991, in the coffers of the heavily subsidized American and British intelligence about these building complexes. More importantly, they had no idea of the programs that they harbored, which were on full steam for the previous ten 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 weapon project was directed to the reconstruction of the heavily damaged oil refineries, electric power stations and telephone exchange buildings. The developed expertise of the several thousand scientific, engineering and technical cadres manifested itself in the impressive restoration of the oil, electric and communication infrastructure in a matter of months.
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 death, for failing to do so. In the first few months, the clean sheets were hung up for all to see. When the scientific questioning mounted, our scientist requested to refer to the scientific and technical reports amassed during the ten years of activity. A fatal error was committed and the order was issued to return the project’s documents which have been traveling up and down Iraq in a welded train car, and to be deposited back again in their original location. That is where 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 weapon 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 brinkmanship with the U.N. inspectors continued. At one heated encounter, an American inspector remarked that the nuclear scientists and engineers are still around, accusingly hinting that they 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 intent on manufacturing a nuclear bomb and has been continuing this work since 1991. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors brought the report to Baghdad demanding a full explanation. Being responsible for the proper issuance and the archiving of the scientific and engineering reports for the nuclear weapon project during the eighties, my opinion on the authenticity of the report was requested. The report was well done, and most probably by someone who had detailed knowledge of the documentation procedures that were laid out. However, it was easily pointed out to the IAEA inspectors that certain words used in the report would not normally be used by us, but by Iranians, and an Arabic-Iranian dictionary was brought to verify our findings. The IAEA inspectors never referred back to that report.
During these years, the specter of a crushing economic inflation was forming. It would spell the dead end for most of the Iraqi nuclear scientists and engineers in the following years.
In 1996, Hussain Kamil, who was in charge of the spectrum of chemical, biological and nuclear programs, announced from his self imposed exile in Amman that there were hidden scientific caches in his farm in Iraq. Apparently, he 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 in, and a renewed strenuous batch of confrontations unfolded till they were asked to leave Iraq in 1998.
In the final years of the nineties, we struggled hard to produce a satisfying report, to the best of our knowledge (and sometimes memory) to the IAEA inspectors on the whole gamut of Iraqi’s nuclear activities, including the weapon program. The IAEA finally issued its report in October 1997 mapping in great details these activities and vaguely raising some “politically correct” queries.
In the meantime, and this is the gist of my discourse, the economic standing of the Iraqi nuclear scientists and engineers (along with the rest of the civil servants and the professional middle class) has pathetically crumpled to poverty levels. Even with occasional salary inducements and some flimsy benefits, many of those highly educated elite 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. A relatively few have managed to leave Iraq. The majority are gripped by poverty, family and fear of the brutal repercussion of the security apparatus to even consider a plan to escape. Their former determination and drive of the eighties have been crushed by the economic harsh realities, their knowledge and experience rusting under age and distanced from research and activity in their fields.
Until my departure from Iraq in late 1998, and having often visited most of the newly created industrial enterprises commandeered by the previous nuclear scientists and engineers, as well as the barely functioning Nuclear Research Institute at Tuwaitha, one can not but notice the pathetically mere shadow of their former selves. Their dreaded fear is that of retirement, with the equivalence of $2 per month pension.
Yet, the American and British intelligence, more likely tainted by war hungry political considerations, seem to blow a balloon full of holes. A consignment of aluminum pipes may, perhaps, could and might possibly end in kilometers long (according to Western scientists) highly technical centrifugal spinners. One would hope not to put it beyond U.S. and British intelligences’ intelligence to, for once, point out to their leaders that there are no remaining qualified Iraqi staff to set up and run these supposedly enrichment spinners. Last month, on a recent guided tour by journalists to a suspected, maybe, could be uranium extraction plant in Akashat in western Iraq, the Iraqi counterpart pointed to the demolished buildings and asked a rhetoric question with 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 the difference, by now, is academic.
Bush and Blair are pulling their public by the nose, covering their hollow patriotic egging on with once again shoddy intelligence. But the two parading emperors have no clothes.
[Imad Khadduri has a MSc in Physics from the University of Michigan (United States) and a PhD in Nuclear Reactor Technology from the University of Birmingham (United Kingdom). Khadduri worked with the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission from 1968 till 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.]
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