August 15, 1998

An Iraqi Defector Warns of Iraq's Nuclear Weapons Research

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    An Iraqi scientist who defected to the United States has publicly described for the first time the inner workings of Iraq's three-decade effort to build a nuclear bomb.

    The scientist, Khidhir Abdul Abas Hamza, said that before he fled Iraq in 1994 he helped train a cadre of young scientists who, working with more senior scientists involved in other projects, would be capable of quickly resuming Iraq's atomic weapons program if the United Nations cuts back on its inspections and, ultimately, lifts economic sanctions.

    Hamza is the highest-ranking scientist ever to defect from Baghdad, and his comments, in nearly 10 hours of interviews, come as a new confrontation is building over whether Baghdad has dismantled its chemical, nuclear and biological programs. Iraq has in recent days refused to cooperate further with U.N. weapons inspectors.

    In the interviews, Hamza, 59, whose defection was an important intelligence coup for the United States that nearly slipped through American fingers because of the CIA's inattention, drew a chilling picture of life as an Iraqi scientist. He said his colleagues were lavishly rewarded for their successes and tortured by the secret police when they failed to deliver.

    He said Iraq's nuclear weapons program was personally directed by Saddam Hussein, Iraq's leader, since its inception 27 years ago. It was abetted, he said, by a host of Western companies, which sold Iraq sophisticated equipment as they "winked and laughed" at patently false cover stories.

    On the eve of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Hamza said, Iraq had completed all the research and testing needed for an atomic weapon and was feverishly trying to make at least one crude bomb using uranium from civilian reactors. This effort, Hamza said, could have produced a bomb in a few months, but it was disrupted by the allied bombing campaign.

    Only after the war did U.S. intelligence officials learn that they had grossly underestimated Iraq's nuclear program, which they had believed to be 10 years from producing a nuclear bomb. But Hamza's defection to the United States and his subsequent debriefing by the CIA brought fresh details to light, including these:

    Iraq's peaceful nuclear power program, begun 30 years ago, was quickly turned into a cover for the secret bomb program, which went ahead even as Baghdad opened up its research reactors to Western inspection.

    Israel's intensive campaign in the 1970s and '80s to stop Iraq from acquiring a bomb accomplished little. The 1981 Israeli bombing raid that destroyed Iraq's French-built Osirak nuclear reactor prompted Saddam to drop the pretense of a peaceful atomic effort and to go "full steam" on a covert program to build a bomb.

    Iraq took advantage of America's open access to valuable scientific information. Hamza said that as a senior member of Iraq's nuclear program, he spent time at American university libraries studying the latest scientific journals and technical accounts of America's nuclear efforts.

    Hamza, who intelligence officials said had been resettled here by the CIA, said he was speaking out now because he was frustrated that Saddam is still obstructing international inspections and deceiving the West. U.S. officials said they did not authorize or encourage Hamza to speak publicly, but they have confirmed many elements of his account.

    Until now, Hamza's defection has been a closely guarded secret. A 1995 article in The Sunday Times of London and a 1997 book by Andrew and Leslie Cockburn included detailed accounts of his alleged kidnapping and assassination by secret Iraqi agents.

    In fact, his escape from Iraq is a remarkable spy yarn that almost went awry. According to former and current intelligence officials, the CIA initially rebuffed Hamza's appeals to defect to the United States. He spent a year in Libya before the agency realized its mistake and agreed to resettle him and rescue his family from their home in downtown Baghdad.

    Nuclear Ambitions:
    He Helped Start Secret Arms Program

    Born in southern Iraq into a family of Shiite Muslims, Hamza graduated from Baghdad University and then studied physics in the early 1960s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Florida State University. After teaching briefly at Florida State and a small college in Georgia, Hamza returned home in 1970.

    He became chairman of the physics department of Iraq's tiny nuclear research center outside Baghdad, and was approached a year later by two envoys from Saddam, who was then Iraq's vice president but already its de facto ruler.

    He said they had asked him to help start a secret nuclear weapons program under the cover of an expanded civilian atomic energy program. Hamza said that though he had reservations about building a nuclear bomb, he was enticed by the promise of extra money and stature as well as the possibility that the civilian program might benefit.

    A round of recent public hangings in Baghdad, he said, underscored the dangers of refusing such a request.

    In 1972, Hamza submitted Iraq's first comprehensive plan for developing nuclear weapons to Saddam -- naming it the "Hussein plan." "We didn't know then that Saddam hated his father and his father's name," Hamza sheepishly recalled.

    The plan was quickly adopted, although Saddam rejected Hamza's ambitious proposals for a separate nuclear city and lavish benefits for its scientists. The Iraqi leader, he said, "thought that a separate atomic city would be too tempting a target for Iraq's enemies."

    At first, Hamza dealt with the leader through intermediaries. But in 1973, he finally met his boss -- a volcanic encounter. During a visit to the nuclear center, Saddam berated Hamza, his chief planner, in front of his colleagues for failing to use frames to display photographs of famous scientists on the office wall.

    "The man was basically illiterate," Hamza said of Saddam. "But here he was complaining about our insufficient respect for great minds. I knew what he was doing: Saddam had to establish his authority by putting the man who had made the plan in his place."

    Saddam tightened his grip over the growing nuclear program in 1974, Hamza said, secretly naming himself chairman of the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission -- a fact that Iraq has denied to U.N. inspectors. He also began controlling every aspect of the scientists' lives, ordering them to divorce foreign wives and marry Iraqi women, while forcing them to report any contact with foreigners.

    Scientists ignored such orders at their peril. In January 1980, Saddam had Iraq's most senior nuclear scientist, Jaafar D. Jaafar, jailed and tortured until he agreed to work on an enrichment program that would separate uranium particles and make bomb-grade fuel. "Jaafar was so badly beaten that he still jumps out of his chair at the slightest scare," Hamza said.

    Help From Abroad:
    Easy Purchases From Several Nations

    Hamza said he found it surprisingly easy to negotiate nuclear cooperation agreements with the former Soviet Union, India, Brazil, France and others to buy nuclear technology that could be used for bombs under peaceful cover. "If you go with the money and some brains, it's easy to acquire the stuff," he said.

    Among other things, Iraq bought a French reactor and an Italian fuel reprocessing facility, an IBM mainframe computer from the United States, and machine tools to make centrifuge components from the Swiss. In 1987 it almost bought for between $110 million and $120 million a complete foundry to forge uranium and other bomb-related components from Leybold and Degussa, two West German companies.

    Hamza, who monitored the negotiations in Germany from a room next to the meeting room, said the companies had offered to supply not only the foundry but, for $200 million, a complete installation that they promised could be built within months.

    He said Saddam rejected the tempting offer mainly because he feared that such a large deal involving highly sensitive equipment would have tipped off Western intelligence that Iraq was transferring its bomb effort to a new site, known as Al Atheer.

    "But we were astonished to see that the companies were actually helping us find cover stories for some of the equipment we needed," Hamza recalled.

    Dr. Jorg Streitferdt, in-house counsel for Degussa, AG, based in Frankfurt, Germany, which owned Leybold at the time, said the companies did sell some equipment that ended up in Iraq's nuclear program, and were later subjected to a series of investigations, including a criminal inquiry by Germany.

    He noted that Degussa was exonerated on the charges of selling vacuum furnaces to Iraq, largely because West Germany did not require export licenses at that time for such sales. Though Degussa executives suspected that Iraq might use the equipment for military purposes given the ongoing Iran-Iraq war, he added, they did not know that Iraq wanted it for a nuclear program.

    "DeGussa and Leybold did not know what the equipment was for," Streitferdt said. "The whole world did not know what Iraq was about to do. We have learned our lesson and now have very tough internal controls on our exports."

    Years before Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait turned the country into an international pariah, many of its nuclear-related purchases were made with the blessing of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. atomic energy monitors. The agency assumed that Iraq was amassing the technical know-how for a peaceful power program, and did little to investigate. The inspectors, Hamza said, never asked even basic questions, "like why an oil-rich country like ours wanted nuclear power?"

    Hans Meyer, the spokesman for the IAEA, denied that the agency had ignored warning signs that Iraq was trying to build a bomb. "Our inspections were very tough," he said "but under the rules of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, we were only permitted to inspect the facilities that Iraq had declared."

    Despite such easy purchases, Hamza said, the program was beset by almost constant setbacks -- the mysterious killings of senior Iraqi nuclear scientists traveling in Europe, corruption, technical blunders and vicious bureaucratic feuds among Iraq's scientists seeking to generate bomb-grade enriched uranium. But Saddam had an uncanny knack for turning such crises into opportunities, he said.

    After Israel bombed Iraq's reactor in 1981, the Iraqi leader created the first completely independent, clandestine weapons program, most of which remained hidden from Western inspectors for nearly a decade. Liberated from having to march in lock step with its peaceful cover, the nuclear weapons program staff grew from 400 to 7,000, Hamza said. And its budget soared.

    At a time when Iraq's bloody war with Iran was draining the country's resources, nuclear scientists were insulated from the war's economic ravages. The program was allotted as much as $150 million a month, Hamza said.

    Incomplete Results:
    Nuclear Scientists Beaten and Tortured

    The Iraqi scientists were expected to produce results, and in one crucial aspect of the program, they had little to show. Despite years of effort, they had failed to produce the enriched uranium that is an essential component in an atomic weapon.

    When Hussein Kamel, Saddam's ambitious son-in-law, took over the nuclear program in 1987, Hamza said he helped him unmask a team of scientists who were falsely claiming success in enriching uranium.

    Hamza was immediately named Iraq's director of weapons programs. "I went to the palace" he said, and "emerged with a new car and the title of a director general."

    He said Kamel had ordered him to find a nuclear bomb trigger while other scientists pursued at least five different methods of separating uranium to make bomb-grade fuel. Hamza said that he had purchased a trigger in Poland, which did not work well, but that other Iraqi scientists developed a workable trigger in Iraq.

    U.S. intelligence officials knew little of the Iraqi effort, in part because the enrichment program relied on a technique abandoned by the United States after the World War II Manhattan Project some 40 years earlier. "They never put two and two together," Hamza said.

    But the enrichment program was still slow to pay off, and Kamel grew restless. The inevitable result was the onset of beatings and torture for the scientists.

    "Hussein Kamel used to send scientists who displeased him to the torture center in Al Taji," Hamza recounted. "You couldn't survive more than two weeks there." A director general of one Iraqi nuclear program was beaten so badly that "he couldn't come to work for a week."

    Shortly before the 1991 Gulf War, Kamel started a crash program to develop a bomb. "Kamel was crazy, but he managed to produce in a month things that would normally take a year," Hamza said. "Fear works well."

    In December 1990 after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Hamza said, he asked to retire from the program. But he was told that he could do so only if he agreed to stay on as a senior adviser and help train Iraq's new generation of bombmakers.

    He left an important legacy. According to Hamza, the program had perfected two methods for enriching uranium, and each could have produced enough material to make a bomb in a year or two.

    Hamza witnessed the intensive American and allied bombing campaign in the Persian Gulf War and was stunned at how little the Americans and their allies knew about Iraq's program. More than half of Iraq's major nuclear installations, most notably the sprawling Al Atheer complex, the program's busy new weapons center, were left largely untouched by the bombing raids.

    Ultimately, Hamza's long-running bureaucratic feud with another leading bomb scientist, the terror of working inside the Iraqi police state and finally the killing of colleagues in the secret program persuaded him to flee.

    The final straw came when the body of Adil Fayadh, one of Iraq's chief nuclear procurement officers, was found near Hamza's farm. "He had a farm next to mine," he said. "They killed him and put him in the ditch on his farm. It got me very worried. It had to be Iraqi intelligence. That night, about two dozen people came to my house, pale-faced and worried. They didn't know what was going to happen."

    Hamza defected soon after, and he continues to anxiously follow the Iraqi nuclear program from afar. He insisted that Saddam remains determined to reconstitute the chemical, biological and nuclear programs in which he invested so much. "Without these props, he would lose power," he said.

    Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company