What the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm did for those who follow such events was to stir the recurrent nightmare of a major Israeli-Arab conflict involving nuclear weapons. This scenario continues to haunt strategists on both sides of the Atlantic.
It was a near thing. With the benefit of hindsight, the analysts are aware that while Iraq encountered serious problems with the development of a nuclear weapon, Baghdad was roughly two years from producing the first Arab atom bomb using indigenous facilities (Pakistan is responsible for the first Islamic bomb, and - until the spat with Taliban became serious - had been working closely with Tehran on their efforts). If Saddam had taken a short cut (which is what their Iranian neighbors are suspected of doing right now, with plutonium and weapons-grade uranium bought on the former Soviet Union [FSU] black market) that objective might have been achieved sooner.
It was Saddam Hussein's intention, once it became clear that the invasion of Kuwait would be fiercely opposed, to take his safeguarded highly enriched uranium (HEU) - covered by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) - and work towards building a single atom bomb. Had he been successful, he might well have achieved it in a year. He would still have lacked the means to deliver his bomb to target, but he working on that as well. A U.S. National Intelligence estimate said at the time: "Iraq (with a supply of HEU) could build such a device in six months to a year." It concluded that the final product was fraught with problems. In any event, it was stated, it would have been "too big to deliver by missile."
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna - and by inference, the major powers - were very much aware that when coalition forces launched Operation Desert Storm, Iraq had in stock a total of almost 14 kilograms of fresh Russian-supplied 50-percent enriched uranium as well as 11.9 kgs of lightly irradiated 93-percent uranium and almost half a kilo of 93-percent HEU, the last two bought from France. All had been subject to IAEA scrutiny, which, according to David Kay (chief inspector of the three early U.N. nuclear weapons inspections in post-Gulf War Iraq) had been cleverly manipulated by Baghdad. The fact that Saddam was in possession of HEU did give him certain leverage. The Iraqis have since admitted to U.N. inspectors that after the IAEA made their routine inspection of this material in November 1990, following the invasion of Kuwait (but before the Allies started bombing), they intended to divert all their HEU and to further enrich a portion of it.1 They were planning to convert it to metal "buttons" for the final weaponization process, which should have taken place by April 1991. The intention was to present the world with a fait accompli: that Iraq had its bomb.
Israeli sources in Washington have suggested to me that in order to do this, Saddam Hussein might have exercised one of two options: He could have test-tired his bomb in the desert at a site to be built near the Saudi border. This would have demonstrated to the world that Iraq had a nuclear capability (and thus, possibly, bring about a stalemate in the Kuwaiti issue with his forces still ensconced at the head of the Gulf). As it was, he was pre-empted by the invasion. Alternatively, there is a school of thought that believed that he might have considered trying to get such a bomb to Israel, possibly by boat, for detonation in the Haifa harbor roadstead. This is a premise that is currently going the rounds in Beirut and is thought to have originally been mooted by Iran's Pasdaran or Revolutionary Guards (Author's visit to Lebanon, August 1997).
Significantly, these people have maintained all along that it is not necessary to physically land a nuclear weapon on American soil in order to cause destruction. Such a device could be detonated while still onboard a ship in New York (or any other) harbor.
It is clear that the biggest shock of post-war IAEA inspections was the discovery that Iraq had a very substantial electromagnetic isotope-separation (EMIS) program for the envisaged production of an A-bomb. It was vast. Numerous building were constructed at Al-Tuwaitha, about 20 miles south of Baghdad. These housed the research and development phases of both the EMIS and gaseousdiffusion enrichment programs.
The diffusion program (which lasted from 1982 until mid-1987) occupied three large buildings. Interestingly, the EMIS project was located in other structures at Al-Tuwaitha, which disconcerted many of the staff working there. They were only too aware of what had happened at Osiraq in June 1981, when that reactor was bombed by the Israelis. They knew, too, that Israel had already complained about the huge conglomeration of buildings at the complex; when Saddam added still more buildings, it did little for morale. For the while, though, the EMIS program had a home. Because EMIS is such a large and energy-intensive technology, intelligence agencies have always assumed that with modern electronic and satellite surveillance techniques they would be able to detect such a development in its infancy. More significant, neither Russia nor America believed that any nation would pursue "obsolete" calutron technology in a bomb program. It was outdated, World War II stuff, the pundits argued. In any event, the United States abandoned that route soon after Japan capitulated. Yet the detail is all there, in print, among documentation that was declassified years ago. For decades it has been available for public inspection by anybody who knew where to look.
After Iraq lost the war and the first of the international inspectors arrived, they uncovered what was termed at the time "a remarkable clandestine nuclear-materials production and weapons design of unexpected size and sophistication."2 The total value of the program was initially estimated at about $5 billion. Later considerations put it at double that. David Kay, in his testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in October 1991, reckoned that there were about 7,000 scientists and 20,000 workers involved on the nuclear side alone, never mind all those still working on chemical and biological programs and missile delivery systems.
One of the most comprehensive descriptions of the way that the Iraqis have managed to befuddle the West is contained in a report that Kay wrote for the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Boston's Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Another came from by Khidir Hamza, the most senior Iraqi nuclear physicist to defect to the West. He detailed the extent of his (and others') work in a report published late 1998 in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.1 Dr. Hamza now lives in the United States with his family, whom he successfully smuggled out of Iraq.
Kay points out that in terms of Security Council Resolution 687, Iraq was required to give the U.N. precise details of the quantities and locations of its nuclear, chemical, biological and ballistic missile stockpiles. These listings were designed to provide a touchstone for subsequent inspection activities and were to lead to the dismantling of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD). "What really happened was that just about every detail that emanated from Baghdad thereafter was misleading," he states.
"On the nuclear front," says Kay, "the scale of deception was even greater. Iraq's initial declaration on April 19, 1991, stated that it had no proscribed nuclear materials This was amended eight days later to acknowledge that it had only what was reported to the IAEA before the war, as well as a peaceful research program centered on the Al-Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center."
Subsequent inspections found something altogether different. It soon became clear that Iraq had been involved in a massive nuclear-weapons program (certainly the largest in any Third World country) for some years. Kay writes:
At the time of the invasion of Kuwait, (Iraq) had begun the start up for industrial-scale enrichment using calutrons and had acquired the material, designs and much of the equipment for 20,000 modem centrifuges. Design, component testing, and construction of manufacturing facilities for actual bomb production were well advanced.
U.N. inspectors reckoned about then that the electromagnetic isotope-separation program had put Iraq just 18 to 30 months away from having enough material for between one and three atom bombs (former UNSCOM inspector Scott Ritter has since confirmed to me that there are three or four; he was about to uncover them [August 1998] when his vigorous inspection program was halted by the State Department). The U.N. Action Team also found much sophisticated European centrifuge technology. This seemed to indicate a serious technology leak from the three-nation (Germany, the Netherlands and Britain) Uranium Enrichment Company, better known as Urenco.
What quickly became apparent was that there were detailed plans for building an "implosion" nuclear device that could use either HEU or plutonium. This type of weapon contains a mass of nuclear material (in this case, HEU) at its core. Iraqi scientists envisioned an implosion device with conventional explosives around the central mass detonating simultaneously. This compresses the fissile material into a supercritical mass. At that instant, neutrons are injected into the material to initiate a chain reaction and explosion. "Fat Man," the American atom bomb that was dropped on the city of Nagasaki and caused about 20,000 immediate deaths (and another 70,000 over the next twelve months or so), was such a weapon. It had a yield of less than 20 kilotons.
All this was no easy task. The IAEA discovered fairly early on that the Iraqis appeared to be just starting to comprehend the extremely complex disciplines associated with spherical geography linked to this kind of weapons research. Another IAEA inspector told me that Iraqi scientists were planning a device with a solid core of about 18 kgs of weapons grade uranium. It would have included a reflector of natural uranium metal a few centimeters thick and a tamper of hardened iron. An atom bomb of this type would weigh about a ton with an outer diameter of about a meter, making it significantly smaller and lighter than the devices developed by Robert Oppenheimer and his Los Alamos team in the mid-forties. The circumference would still have precluded it from being fitted to Scuds.
Astonishment has always been expressed at the "true breadth of Saddam's nuclear weapons enterprise, as well as the amount of adroit maneuvering needed to keep it hidden from prying eyes both on the ground and above it," says David Albright. He spent time with the IAEA Action Team in Iraq and is president of Washington's Institute of Science and International Security (ISIS). These discoveries shook the international nonproliferation regime, and the tremors persist.
What they did reveal were critical weaknesses in inspection routines and export controls as well as in intelligence gathering and sharing. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright reckons that the reality of those first disclosures, and the well-founded suspicion that more lay ahead, led to the initial assumption that Saddam was "on the brink" of building his own bomb.
While the Iraqi nuclear program involved tens of thousands of people, no one in the West was even vaguely aware until long afterwards of the numbers of Iraqi students who had been sent abroad to acquire the necessary expertise. Students were rarely sent to the same universities or countries, which made it difficult for any one authority to appreciate the extent of technical skills being established by Baghdad. It also presented problems in being able to keep track of individual Iraqi scientists. The two exceptions were France and Italy, which together hosted about 400 Iraqis; yet none were officially approached about what they were doing. Dr. Hamza states that nearly all the current leaders of the program were drawn from those trainees.
Dr. Kay highlights this with an observation. While he was in Iraq, he says, he dealt for months with a senior Iraqi scientist whose entire university training, from undergraduate to doctorate, had been in the United States. His first job had been at a U.S. nuclear power plant. Yet, he states, all basic data on or pictures of this key individual could not be found.
The Iraqi experience has since led to a considerable tightening up of IAEA inspection procedures, to prevent such things from happening again. Yet looking at developments in Iran towards the close of the millennium, history appears to be repeating itself.4
There have been some curious anomalies. It is no longer a secret that prior to Operation Desert Storm the Iraqis received generous amounts of tactical aid from those who later became their chief antagonists, the Americans. During the Iran-Iraq War, while Washington was providing arms to Iran in the hope of getting their hostages in Lebanon freed, it was also rushing classified satellite intelligence to Baghdad almost as soon as it came in. This gave the Iraqis a good idea what the Americans were able see, and, by inference, how they could be fooled. With time, they would use this knowledge to good advantage.5
Before that, Baghdad had managed to gain acceptance by the IAEA by getting Abdul-Wahid Al-Saji, a mild-mannered Iraqi physicist to serve as an IAEA inspector. Gradually, the Iraqis came to understand how the agency worked, and this knowledge proved extremely useful to Baghdad's weapons program in obtaining nuclear technology. According to Hamza, the agency accepted Iraq's importation of HEU for its research reactor without ever evaluating the possibility that it might be diverted for military use. Most important, Iraqis were able to gain a complete understanding of IAEA inspection procedures and processes. Iraqi officials were also alerted to the success of satellite remote sensing in uncovering clandestine and especially underground activities. For this reason, Saddam built no underground facilities.
Kay makes some instructive comments about the way that the Iraqis, on numerous occasions, demonstrated that they had a rather accurate understanding of the limitations of U.S. technical collection systems and of how data gathered by such systems were interpreted by the experts:
The catalogue of these techniques is long. It includes the erection of buildings within buildings (Tuwaitha); deliberately constructing buildings designed to the same plans and for the same purposes to look different (Ash Sharqat and Tarmiya); hiding power and water feeds to mislead as to facility use (Tarmiya); disguising operational state (Al Atheer); diminishing the value of a facility by apparent low security and lack of defenses (Tarmiya); severely reducing off-site emissions (Tuwaitha and Tarmiya); moving critical pieces of equipment as well as dispersing and placing facilities underground.
Hamza points out that, even though Al-Tuwaitha had 100-ft-high beams (which should have attracted suspicion that the plant was being used for other purposes), a lot of effort went into carefully escorting IAEA inspectors each time they arrived along pre-designated paths that exposed none of the buildings where secret research was being conducted. Answers to possible questions would be rehearsed for days beforehand. It was only after Desert Storm, when it received aerial photos of the site, that the IAEA learned about many buildings there they had never entered.
And when the bombing was done, the Pentagon had to concede that, while Iraq had suffered through the most sophisticated aerial bombardment in history, the country emerged, in the words of U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Merrill A. McPeak, "with enough nascent nuclear capability to produce weapons by the year 2000."
There is strong sentiment among the major powers at U.N. headquarters in New York, almost a decade after that brief campaign, that as long as an even latent threat exists that Iraq might go nuclear after U.N. sanctions are lifted, this restriction must remain in place, indefinitely if necessary. The rationale is based partly on reports reaching the outside world through defectors (and from sources close to the IAEA) that Iraq is still on the nuclear path.
The fundamental scientific and industrial infrastructure to build a bomb remains in place. More pertinent, the staff responsible (there are hundreds of them) are on permanent standby. They and their families are supported by the state as if they were employed full-time. Also, while it is acknowledged that much of the material intended for use to construct the bomb has been either uncovered or destroyed, there is evidence that much remains hidden.
There were also unsettling indications late in 1998 that some kind of "technical cooperation" is in place between Iraq and its former blood enemy Syria. Israeli intelligence sources indicate that this could include a joint development program of WMD. Certainly, Damascus has been involved with biowarfare agents, and, while it is too early to speculate about a nuclear link, it could be a feasible scenario for the next decade, especially if U.N. sanctions on Iraq remain rooted. Saddam has always been keen to make use of his assets in the interests of Islamic hegemony, especially if the ultimate target is the Jewish homeland. As it is, after Desert Storm he sent some of his WMD assets to Libya; these were then forwarded overland to Sudan.6
There is little doubt that Syria continues to demonstrate an interest in acquiring WMD of its own. By early 1997, it had tipped some of the Scud-C missiles Asad deployed along the southern (Israeli) front with Sarin (and it is thought, VX) nerve gas. This prompted an IDF spokesman to declare that if such weapons were used against the Israeli state it would automatically be followed by nuclear retaliation; harsh words in an already tough environment.
According to Paul Stokes, an UNSCOM Action Team deputy leader, frequent inspections prevented Iraq from conducting nuclear weapons' development work at declared sites since the end of the war. But there is evidence (including that which has since been made public by Scott Ritter as well as defectors) that this never stopped Saddam's people from going ahead elsewhere, in clear violation of a variety of Security Council resolutions. And while the IAEA, in theory, can go anywhere at any time - they overfly the country in UNSCOM-operated helicopters and aircraft (including a U-2 surveillance plane) - the Iraqis have barred IAEA inspectors from many sites. In some instances, this intransigence gives them time to remove incriminating evidence. In his MIT report, Dr. Kay gives a description of such an attempted deception, often a nightmare of duplicity.
What has become clear with time is that Iraq has tended to be devious throughout the inspection period. As one observer stated, "The Iraqis lied fluently from day one." He told Middle East Policy that among those who had worked with the U.N. in the region, it was common knowledge that they had stalled, obfuscated, covered up or confused wherever and whomever they could in a bid to obscure the true picture of what had been going on. For instance, one of the conclusions already reached in 1992,7 was that while the Iraqis claimed to have had little success with the centrifuge enrichment program, a mismatch between the sophistication of the materials they admit to having imported and those turned over to inspection has raised concern that a hidden centrifuge facility still remains to be found. There are other examples.
It took the defection of Saddam's son in-law, General Hussein Kamel- former head of the Ministry of Industry and Military Industrialization (MIMI) - to expose the full extent of what Iraq had achieved since Desert Storm. Once he was safely ensconced in Jordan, Iraq had no option but to hand over to the IAEA half a million pages of secreted documents (from the "chicken farm") as well as almost 20 tons of high-strength maraging steel and stocks of carbon fiber for more than a thousand gas centrifuges, all of which (and much more) Kamel had detailed in his debriefing. Some of these items, according to Ritter, are directly linked to what is believed still to be hidden.
There is good reason for this supposition. Iraq is known to have since tried to acquire hydrofluoric acid - a chemical used in the production of uranium hexafluoride feedstock. Scientists use it in gas-centrifuge and other enrichment processes and as a purging agent to remove industrial residues from centrifuges and calutron parts. According to Michael Eisenstadt, military affairs fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, it raises questions - notwithstanding the current IAEA monitoring process - about the status of the Iraqi nuclear program.8
The Nuclear Decade
In the simplest terms, the Iraqi nuclear program comprehensively covers the years from 1976 (when construction on the French-supplied Tammuz IRR/PPR reactor began) to about mid-1991, when all major nuclear work was halted by the Gulf War. In between, the most significant highlights were these:
1981 - The nearly completed Tammuz reactor at Osiraq is destroyed by Israeli warplanes.
1982 - Research concerning various gas-enrichment methods gets into full swing.
1987 - Lab-scale quantities of LEU are produced by calutrons, now referred to as "Baghdadtrons."
1987/88? - Construction of the Sharqat calutron enrichment plant begins.
1989 - Construction is started at the al-Furat centrifuge production facility.
1990 - Crash program using diverted reactor fuel is initiated.
1991 - Work is halted by war as the IAEA and UNSCOM weapons strip search begins.
The Israeli Air Force bombing of the facilities at the Osiraq reactor (and subsequent developments) highlighted at a very early stage that Iraq was fostering a nuclear-weapons interest. Saddam Hussein had bought two nuclear reactors from France: a 40 megawatt thermal research reactor, which was destroyed, 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 recycle nuclear fuel.
These deals were followed by a further purchase from Italy of a radiochemistry laboratory in 1978 that included three "hot cells" used for the reprocessing of plutonium. Until destroyed in the Gulf War, they were operating at Al-Tuwaitha. Meanwhile, Iraq had signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. (Iran is also an NPT signatory.)
Dr. Jafer dhia Jafar, leader of Iraq's nuclear-weapons effort (even though his cv includes the notation that he was jailed for 20 months by Saddam for "political crimes"), claims that it was the Israeli bombing of Osiraq that had originally prompted his government to proceed with a secret enrichment program. Educated at the University of Manchester, England, and Imperial College, London, he also spent four years working at CERN, the European accelerator center in Switzerland.
Jafar reckons that the attack cost his country almost a billion dollars. Yet, he says, the world community did not punish Israel for what was clearly an act of war. This was one of the factors, he maintains, that caused his nation to resort to subterfuge. As he described it to U.N. inspectors: "Let Israel believe it destroyed our nuclear capacity. Accept the sympathy being offered for this aggression and then proceed in secret with the program." Already in J 982 the Iraqis had begun to explore electromagnetic isotope separation at Al-Tuwaitha, which eventually became the principal focus of nuclear research in the country. Baghdad was said to be confident that its scientific establishment had the necessary skills and technology to master this extremely difficult discipline. They also reached out in other directions: gas-centrifuge, gaseous-diffusion, and chemical enrichment and laser-isotope separation.
At the beginning, time, money and effort went into gaseous diffusion. This route was abandoned when some of the technical problems proved insurmountable. Also, Saddam's agents were having trouble getting their hands on essential equipment on the open market, much of which had been embargoed by the West. Looking at the lists, they appear nonetheless to have been remarkably successful. Starting in the late 1980s, Iraqi scientists began working on centrifuge enrichment as a possible alternative or a source of LEU for EMIS. They had hoped to achieve a production output of about 15 kg of 93-percent weapons-grade uranium a year at each of the EMIS production units that they intended to build.
"Originally, the gaseous-diffusion elements would have provided low-enriched uranium as a feedstock for the EMIS plants, dramatically increasing HEU production," Jafar explained during one of his interviews.
The Tarmiya complex on the Tigris River (built by a Yugoslavian firm, Federal Directorate of Supply and Procurement) and its "twin" at Ash Sharqat (a few hundred miles to the north of Baghdad) were designated to support industrial-scale EMIS production. While there were numerous problems of a technical nature, both plants together could ultimately have produced between 25 and 100 kgs of weapons-grade HEU a year had they operated successfully. This would have given Iraq the capacity to build up to four atomic bombs a year.
A small plutonium-separation program was started in the mid-1970s. Following contact with SNIA-Techint of Italy, a facility was established in Baghdad for research on fuel processing under IAEA safeguards. This laboratory was eventually able to separate small quantities of plutonium, again, contrary to the NPT safeguards agreement.
Exploiting the West
Kay's observations about some of the deception techniques employed by Baghdad are interesting. Iraq, he maintains, was able to use the strong desire of Western providers of technology to make sales in order to effectively conceal the true purposes of its efforts. Thus, they were able to extract a considerable amount of proprietary information from these firms without compensation. He gives the classic example which lay at the heart of Iraq's efforts to obtain technology for the chemical enrichment (Chemex) of uranium:
There are two suppliers in the world of chemical-enrichment technology; one is Japanese, the other French. In the mid-1980s Iraq initiated preliminary discussions with both and indicated a desire to acquire this capability. In the end they concentrated on France.
Iraq engaged the European company in lengthy negotiations that would soon take a familiar pattern. Each time Iraq would say that it needed "only a little more data" to make a decision. The French would reveal more. The cycle would begin again later; this went on for several years. Finally. after the suppliers had disclosed just about all the technology involved with the process, Baghdad announced that it was too expensive and was abandoning all interest in pursuing it. Iraqi scientists were then able to begin the clandestine development of Chemex on their own.
David Albright stresses that in the evaluation of enrichment technologies, the Iraqis saw many advantages in EMIS technology, the first being that this procedure involves large and static pieces of equipment.9 This was regarded by Baghdad as preferable to gas-centrifuge programs, which required advanced engineering technology and was ill-suited to a developing country with a limited industrial base. For example, the rotors on gas centrifuges move at seven or eight times the speed of sound; the slightest instability can cause bearings to fail and rotors to crash in an instant. Pakistan has been battling with this technique for years. An intelligence source has indicated to me that for all their success in exploding a bomb, they never quite mastered it.
The advantages of following the antiquated EMIS route are important, especially since they might well apply to other developing countries intent on following this path: (a) EMIS is well documented in the open literature; (b) the basic scientific and technical problems associated with the operation of EMIS separators is relatively straightforward to master; (c) the computational software and main equipment are often not on international export-control lists, making procurement easy; (d) the design and manufacture of the main equipment for prototypes can be accomplished indigenously; (e) the feed material is relatively easy to produce and handle; (f) final enrichment can be handled in two stages in machines that act independently of each other (one or more separator failures do not affect the operation of other separators); (g) a LEU feed can be used for a substantial increase in productivity.
Iran appears to be heading the same way, though, like Iraq, Tehran keeps its options open with regard to gas-centrifuge technology and laser as well as chemical separation. British Intelligence sources maintain that, right now, there are more than 20 countries in the Third World intent on acquiring this kind of expertise.10
In Iraq, meanwhile, atom-bomb design (weaponization, in the argot) was the responsibility of the scientists and technicians at Al Atheer, which the minister said when he opened the plant about 30 miles south of the capital was to be "like Los Alamos".
By the time that David Kay and his IAEA Action Team associates visited the site, which had been bombed by the Allies during the war, the Iraqis had managed to acquire a variety of advanced equipment, much of it on Western export-control (and thus embargoed) lists. Included were such items as high-speed streak cameras from Hamamatsu Photonics of Japan and maraging steel (which was found elsewhere in Iraq) from European suppliers.
Al Atheer was also involved in sophisticated work in metallurgy, chemistry and detonation engineering. Here, the Swiss company Asea Brown Boveri provided a state-of-the-art, cold isostatic press that could be used to shape explosive charges. More Swiss firms that supplied equipment to Iraq included Acomel SA of Neuchatel (five high frequency inverters suitable for centrifuge cascades) and, among other shipments, 700 uranium hexafluoride-resistant bellows valves from Balzer AG and VAT AG (together with the American company Nupro).
There is no doubt that in pursuing his objective to acquire a bomb Saddam relied heavily on foreign aid. The bulk of it, curiously, came not from his old allies the Soviets and their cohorts, but from Europe. David Albright and Mark Hibbs stated in their reports that Iraq's "Petrochemical Project Three"- the code name for the secret program (conducted under the auspices of MIMI) - received massive infusions of money and resources. Like America's redundant Manhattan project, Iraq sought a number of different technical avenues to the bomb.11
The Iraqi leader sent out a minor army of agents to establish an elaborate procurement network which had operatives throughout the developed world. Even Africa was covered; South Africa (through Armscor) had much potential. By then the Apartheid regime had supplied Iraq with the vaunted G-5 gun, a 155mm artillery piece which, until silenced, was used to good effect against Coalition Forces in Desert Storm. The entire program was subject to the most stringent secrecy. There wasn't an Iraqi legation abroad that was not involved. Notably, Jerry Bull, the Canadian maverick arms developer involved in Saddam's "Super Gun" when he was killed in Belgium by the Mossad, also had a hand in developing the G-5.
Ostensibly, everything that was acquired was intended for civil or peaceful use. Purchases were hidden behind such innocuous pursuits as dairy production, car and truck manufacture as well as oil refining. But it did not take the major powers long to catch on: Iraq was involved in something that was different, and, more disconcerting, it was happening on a breathtaking scale and breakneck speed.
Many of the bulky calutron pole magnets used to enrich uranium were produced in Austria by a state-owned firm that shipped the finished products to Iraq, half by truck through Turkey and the rest through Hamburg. The Austrians never asked the purpose of this equipment, and the Iraqis volunteered nothing. Much the same story applies to the high-quality copper that was used to wrap these magnets. It was produced in Finland to Iraqi specifications.12
Hundreds of tons of HMX high explosives - the "big brother" of the better-known RDX (some of which would be used in the A-bomb program) - were imported from Carlos Cardoen of Chile, who was very well known to the old South African Apartheid regime. This man eventually built a plant in Iraq to manufacture cluster bombs. Cardoen has since been under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department.
Germany (both pre- and postunification) featured prominently in almost every phase of the Iraqi nuclear program, so much so that it is impossible that Bonn could not have been aware of the extent of it. German companies included international conglomerates like Siemens AG (a workshop for "tube processing"); H & H Metalform (flow forming machines to make maraging steel rotor tubes for centrifuges); Neue Magdeburger Werkzeugmachinen GmbH (aluminum forgings and a CNC machine to machine casings); Rhein-Bayem Fahrzeugbau GmbH (240,000 magnetizable ferrite spacers for centrifuges); oxidation furnaces from Degussa AG and Leybold Heraeus (electron-beam welder); centrifuge balancing machines from Reutlinger und Sohne KG; Arthur Pfeiffer Vakuum Tecknik GmbH (vacuum induction furnace) and a host of other companies and products. It is disturbing to some Western intelligence agencies that some of these companies now have Iranian interests.
H&H was contracted by Baghdad for centrifuge assistance and served, while doing so, as a conduit for advanced technical know-how, material and equipment for the Iraqi nuclear effort. Much of the financing for the project was handled by the scandal-ridden Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) before it folded. Subsequently, the Atlanta-based branch of an Italian bank, Banco Nationale da Livomo (BNL) was placed under investigation in the United States.
There were British companies involved too, some of which are still under a cloud. These included Endshire Export Marketing, which met an order for ring magnets that had come from Inwako GmbH, a firm directed by German arms dealer Simon Heiner. British SIS, aware by now that the magnets were for a nuclear program, let the shipment proceed in order to try to establish what technical route the Iraqis were taking. London works closely with Langley on such matters. It transpired that the Technology Development Group, a company codirected by an Iraqi intelligence agent, Safa Al-Haboudi, was an associate of some of the German firms involved in the transactions. Al-Haboudi eventually implicated Matrix Churchill; he was on that company's senior management. Matrix Churchill offered a lucrative, long-term contract for a tool shop (ostensibly for manufacturing automobile parts) to the Swiss metal-working combine Schmiedemeccanica SA.
The records show that some of these exports never got through. Once the West had been alerted, they came down hard. Swiss and German customs officials halted a shipment of special computer numerically-controlled (CNC) machines for making the endcaps and baffles of centrifuges. Earlier, Iraqi operators were caught trying to smuggle detonation capacitators from CSI Technologies of California. All would have been used in an implosion-type bomb.
For all the help that Baghdad received from abroad, there were some serious technological gaps. Iraqi electronics expertise, for instance, did not warrant close scrutiny. The Iraqis, it was discovered later, were having difficulty developing adequate capacitators and bridge-wire detonators. Rolf Ekeus, the former head of UNSCOM, said that while Iraq had blueprints and considerable knowledge, they tended to lag in the engineering aspect. Also, Baghdad had been noticeably slowed by the inability to obtain what they needed from overseas as Western government controls began to stymie deliveries.
Iraq is not alone in this sort of subterfuge. The newsletter Nuclear Fuel reported on June 20, 1994, that several shipments of preformed tubes for scoops in gas centrifuges from the German metalworking firm Team GmbH were shipped to Pakistan after being declared in customs documents as bodies for ballpoint pens. There are other examples, most of them still under wraps.
An Enterprising Country
Looking at the broader picture, it is clear that an embattled Iraq was able to demonstrate an astonishing level of enterprise in getting as far as it did. It is important that this be noted, since there are other nations that might wish to emulate this model. Basic items - factories, electrical supply, power equipment - were easy to buy. But, as Albright explained, "the more specific the equipment Iraq sought, the more export controls began to bite. Crucial transfers of components were thus effectively blocked."
Orders were subdivided into subcomponents which, on paper, looked harmless. Or machines were bought to manufacture something back home. Middlemen and unethical companies by the hundreds were bribed to disguise final destinations or to falsify end-users certificates in much the same way as South Africa (under U.N. sanctions) stocked its arsenal with embargoed items of choice.
German technicians were secretly hired to work on the Arab bomb project. Once the IAEA went to work and uncovered names, some of these people were charged with treason. Several were jailed, among them Bruno Stemmler, Walter Busse and Karl-Heinz Schaab. It was Schaab who provided Saddam with classified centrifuge blueprints. The three men had worked on the centrifuge program at MAN Technologies AG of Munich. Busse and Stemmler came to Iraq under the sponsorship of the German company H&H Metalform.
Together they operated efficiently as a team and met many of Iraq's technical requirements. They also assisted in locating international suppliers. Some were companies with whom they had previously been associated. In the end, says Albright, their assistance greatly accelerated Iraq's gas-centrifuge-design process. "It sped the acquisition of necessary materials, know-how and equipment for manufacture." During an earlier period, some Iraqis had already spent time in Urenco-contractor installations in exchange programs in order to familiarize themselves with complex centrifuge-related procedures.
Fears for the Future
Iran, according to some sources, might, early in 1999 be further ahead than Iraq by the time that UNSCOM arrived to begin their search. Should Tehran have managed to acquire a supply of weapons grade uranium on the FSU black market - and there is a lot of conjecture right now (television sensationalism apart) that the mullahs might have done exactly that - it is not impossible that they are on the brink of their own atomic revolution. The implications are chilling. As Kay says,
The failed efforts of both the IAEA safeguards inspectors and national intelligence authorities to detect, prior to the Gulf War, a nuclear weapons program of the magnitude and advanced character of Iraq's, should stand as a monument to the fallibility of on-site inspection and national intelligence when faced by a determined opponent. There are those who believe that these words should be cast in concrete and embedded into the floor of Washington's Capitol.
The Iraqi military buildup, as well as the multiple failures of its timely detection is an experience rich in lessons that, if correctly understood, may help in detecting other covert weapons programs and, equally important, U.S. understanding of the limits of its ability to guarantee timely detection.
This followed a comment by John Deutch, erstwhile U.S. director of central intelligence, in Foreign Affairs in 1992:
The point is not how wrong the United States was about Iraq's timetable for acquiring a bomb, but rather how greatly the U.S. underestimated the magnitude of the Iraqi covert effort. As it stands, such a massive miscalculation of a nation's ability, high or low, can surely happen again.13
ADDENDUM: IRAQI GERM-WARFARE DOUBLE AGENT
Iraq's interest in WMD goes beyond the nuclear. We know now that poisonous gases were used to vicious effect by the Iraqi dictator against some of his own dissidents. Then there is Baghdad's preoccupation with biological weapons. This development has a convoluted twist to it. The Iraqi germ-warfare specialist, Dr. Nassir al-Hindawi, who was arrested by Saddam's secret police shortly before he was about to flee to the West last year, had been "turned" several months before. A source in Washington told Middle East Policy that Hindawi had been "forced by the Iraqis to continue to cooperate with his Western contact" as if nothing had happened.
A government spokesman in the Iraqi capital said in a statement last April that the country's top biowarfare scientist and "father of Saddam's clandestine biological warfare program" had been arrested after he was found in possession of "sensitive documents." He apparently also had a forged foreign passport and "was about to flee to a 'rogue' state," the Iraqis claimed. Curiously, Baghdad described his arrest as part of their effort "to prevent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction," which one senior U.N. official described as utter nonsense.
All indications are that, had Hindawi been able to get away, he would have headed for the United States. An intelligence source disclosed that he might have made the move a long time ago, but as with other potential Iraqi defectors, he feared for the safety of his family, who are under house arrest. I sat on the story for several months after I had been asked not to use it because of the sensitive nature of developments. With new disclosures about WMD having been uncovered by UNSCOM before the organization was forced to quit Iraq last August - and the fracas that followed the resignation of former weapons inspector Scott Ritter - Hindawi's role now is history.
The American-trained microbiologist's story reads like a Near East thriller. What we know is that almost all Iraqis working on sensitive defense-related projects are required to live in government-sponsored, high-security compounds. Also, it is rare that all members of a single family are allowed to leave at the same time, in part to prevent another mass defection such as that of Saddam's son-in-law, General Kamel Hussein, who fled to Amman in 1995 with a family entourage. It was Kamel who exposed Iraq's clandestine nuclear and biological warfare secrets. That caused the immediate upgrading of the UNSCOM search for hidden military assets, with, as is now apparent, considerable success. Unfortunately, in spite of assurances from Saddam Hussein himself, Kamel Hussein paid for that with his life, murdered after a shoot-out by the despot's son Uday. A few hours before, Kamel's wife, at Saddam's insistence, had unceremoniously divorced him.
Dr. Hindawi's story is very different. A reliable source in Washington said that the microbiologist was arrested more than a year ago. He was interrogated and then released by the Iraqi government as if nothing had happened. On threat of death, he was forced to continue cooperating with his foreign contact. After that, the source said, he was able to provide very little of value. It was this fundamental switch in approach and the nature of the information that he started passing on that initially raised suspicions in Washington that he might have been compromised.
"All that Hindawi offered us from then on was dated or recycled intelligence reports that were of little consequence," I was told. The charade continued for some months, after which he was arrested for the second time. It had become clear to all that something was seriously amiss.
What the Americans are aware of is that of the eight documents in Dr. Hindawi's possession when he was taken into custody (and which were handed to UNSCOM at their insistence) seven contained nothing new; they were among those that had originally been uncovered in the trove of secret documents at General Kamel's "chicken farm" outside Baghdad. Nobody is saying what was in the eighth document, though if Iraq's military intelligence was involved, as no doubt it was, its contents would almost certainly have been innocuous.
It is obvious that prior to his first arrest, Dr. Hindawi provided his Western handlers with enough solid intelligence to have caused Saddam to suddenly break with Scott Ritter and UNSCOM (as he did the year before, when they were about to make a breakthrough, and which caused the United States and its allies to mobilize for an attack).
According to Dr. Dick Spertzel, chief biological officer with UNSCOM, who spoke to me before he left for Iraq January, a year ago, U.N. inspectors were "on to something very big, very significant." Dr. Spertzel would not elaborate, except to say that "you will be reading about it." It was then that Saddam suddenly brought all U.N. activities in Iraq to a halt, leading ultimately to another impasse. It is believed that a good deal of the more sensitive information relating to biological warfare matters had apparently come from Hindawi, though U.N. headquarters in New York has refused to comment about this.
Right now, no one is certain of Dr. Hindawi's fate. There is concern for his welfare because he is in his seventies and not in good health. It is known that after having been taken into custody by Saddam's Mukhabarat (secret police) he was tortured. Scott Ritter is of the opinion that while UNSCOM was around, Baghdad made sure that Hindawi remained alive. "With us gone, anything could happen now," he told me.
UNSCOM spokesman Ewen Buchanan told Middle East Policy that the Iraqis had informed the United Nations that while they were still in-country, they were welcome to interview Hindawi if they wished to do so. He believed that this was a clear indication that the man was still alive. "We would have spoken to him then if there was any need to, but there was nothing new that he could tell us," he said. Since then, the dynamics have changed. In any event, he added, even if a U.N. official wished to talk to him, the prisoner was hardly able to communicate freely since someone from the Iraqi government was always present during such interviews.
While Britain has made a diplomatic protest about his arrest and stated that her majesty's government expected Dr. Hindawi to be treated in accordance with his senior position in government and the law, Washington appears to be uncharacteristically passive. A State Department official told me that this was now a matter for UNSCOM and not the United States. Dr. Hindawi, who obtained his doctorate in microbiology in 1969 from Mississippi State University, originally provided Saddam with the basis for his theories of cheap military victories using gas and germs (some of which were put into effect during the war with Iran). This is the same man who is believed to have been the "evil genius" responsible for bombing Kurd villages with chemicals, which led to terrible loss of life. Consequently, he is somebody for whom a lot of people involved with the politics of Iraq have little sympathy.
Indeed, it was Hindawi, as managing director of the biological warfare plant south of Baghdad at Al Hakam, who initiated Iraq's biowarfare buildup under the guise of producing a single-cell-protein animal-feed supplement as well as a biological pesticide. Instead, as we now know, Hindawi produced tons of anthrax, later weaponized and used to fill Scud missile warheads for which the United Nations had been searching for years. There are at least 25 Iraqi warheads - six of them, according to Ritter, fully weaponized - that the United Nations knows about and that are still missing. Al Hakam, on the insistence of UNSCOM was eventually leveled with explosives.
Among items that U.N. inspectors were looking for before they were forced out of Iraq were Dr. Hindawi's original formulations for waging war with chemical and biological agents. These documents eventually resulted in Saddam's starting his own chemical-biological warfare program in 1985. Though the issue headed the list in just about every UNSCOM demand, the Iraqis always insisted that everything had been destroyed. Significantly, there is not one UNSCOM official of any nationality at U.N. headquarters who believes that to be true.
1 David Albright and Robert Kelley, "Has Iraq Come Clean at Last?," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November/December 1995.
2 Jay C. Davis and David A. Kay, "Iraq's Secret Nuclear Weapons Program," Physics Today, July 1992.
3 Khidir Hamza, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September/October 1998.
4 Until Recently, the Iranians have prevented IAEA staff from setting up environmental monitoring units in some areas where the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran was active, particularly at some newly-established uranium processing plants.
5 William Burrows & Robert Windrem, Critical Mass (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994).
6 Pointer, supplement to Jane's Intelligence Review, London, March 1998.
7 Davis & Kay, op. cit.
8 Michael Eisenstadt, "Like a Phoenix from the Ashes? The Future of Iraqi Military Power," The Washington Institute of Near East Policy, 1993.
9 David Albright, Frans Berkhout and William Walker, Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium 1996 (OUP 1997).
10 International Defense Review (Jane's Information Group), London, September 1997.
11 David Albright and Mark Hibbs, "Iraq's Shop-Till-You-Drop Nuclear Program." Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 1992.
12 David Kay, "Denial and Deception Practices of WMD Proliferators: Iraq and Beyond," The Center for Strategic and International Studies & Massachusetts Institute for Technology, The Washington Quarterly, Winter 1995.
13 John M. Deutch, "The New Nuclear Threat," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 71, Fall 1992.