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National Observer Home > No. 53 - Winter 2002 > Book reviews

Brighter than the Baghdad Sun

By Shyam Bhatia and Daniel McGrory

Washington, Regnery Publishing Inc., 2001, pp. 341.

Ever since he became Vice-President of the Báath Party in 1968 through animal cunning, treachery and brutality, Saddam Hussein has been obsessed with building an Iraqi nuclear bomb. Numbers of bright young students had been sent to Russia for training in science subjects since about 1954, when King Hussein wanted Iraq to engage in nuclear research for peaceful purposes, for reasons of national prestige. This was now greatly expanded by sending increasing numbers to western universities.

In 1969 Iraq became a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, since when the Iraqis have maintained the fiction of peaceful research. No expense has been spared by them in covering their tracks by purchasing equipment which could also be used for peaceful research, and by procuring unenriched uranium. Though plutonium would have given quicker progress its purchase would have made their real intentions obvious.

Two men were central to this project. Dr. Jafar Dhia Jafar was a brilliant nuclear physicist who led the design team and was too afraid to take a principled stand against Saddam Hussein’s policy. His close associate was an outstanding chemical engineer, Hussein Sharistani, who had been associated with Jafar from student days. Sharistani did take a principled stand and consequently suffered about twelve years of torture and imprisonment. All that saved him was Saddam’s recognition that he needed him and his hope that Sharistani would break.

The French were happy to sell Iraq a reactor about thirty times bigger than they would need for ordinary research purposes. This was recognised by Israel which destroyed the reactor before it could be delivered. That reactor would have produced enough weapons-grade uranium for six bombs. Saddam Hussein also arranged for Iraq to obtain a seat on the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency to keep abreast of their methods of detection of nuclear activity. Incredibly, members of the I.A.E.A. are able to choose the nationality of those conducting the six-monthly inspections of members’ nuclear facilities. The Iraqi laboratories generally had apparently innocuous facilities on the surface with the weapons laboratories underground, to deceive the inspectors who were so lavishly entertained that their inspections were very perfunctory.

When the Iraqis had learned how to avoid detection, the laboratories were spread around, duplicated and protected by perimeter fences at such a distance that satellite pictures did not show the association between facility and fence. There were two factories, exact replicas of Oak Ridge, to produce highly enriched uranium in order to manufacture explosive lenses for initiating the chain reaction in the bombs. A large laboratory at Tuwaitha was used for designing mechanical components and electronic circuitry. Test facilities were also estabished and disguised in other parts of the counry. In all there were some thirty thousand scientists and engineers involved in this project. American intelligence was unaware of the situation until they started to learn about it from defectors at the end of the Gulf War.

Saddam was so obsessed with the nuclear programme that he had difficulty finding the necessary money. This led to the decision to invade Kuwait to expropriate their oil revenues, which brought on the Gulf War. In the negotiations that followed the invasion and preceded the allied attack Saddam was playing for time to complete the bomb. Not having a launch vehicle, he was prepared to explode the bomb on the outskirts of Kuwait City even though it would mean the death of thousands of his own troops.

The allies had a list of targets, but the nuclear facilities were allocated an increasingly lower priority by them. Fortunately, an American pilot with a weapon load and no viable target dumped it on the lens factory and so put paid to any hope of Iraq producing a bomb for some time. After the Iraqi surrender the peace negotiations were apparently left to Schwarzkopf, whose main concern seemed to be to get the troops home. It is incredible that such negotiations should be left to a field commander, especially as there was some concern in Washington at to the way Schwarzkopf had been handling the campaign.

In view of mistrust of the I.A.E.A.’s capacity to monitor the destruction of Iraq’s nuclear, biological and chemical weapons the allies insisted on the United Nations establishing a body to be known as U.N.S.C.O.M. to supervise this programme. For the next eight or nine years there was a running battle between the Iraqi authorities and U.N.S.C.O.M. to obtain compliance. In the end U.N.S.C.O.M. was thrown out, despite the defection of Saddam’s two Kamil sons-in-laws with large quantities of information. President Clinton had not stomach for doing what was necessary, except when a token response would keep Monica Lewinski’s name out of the media.

It is not hard to see why George W. Bush would see Iraq as unfinished business.

Paul Amos


National Observer No. 53 - Winter 2002