Those who would measure the timetable for Saddam’s atomic programme in years may be seriously underestimating the situation and the gravity of the threat.
George Bush, November 1990
He tried [12 years ago] to develop a programme – an upgraded Oak Ridge [enrichment] facility in Iraq. Of course he couldn’t. It is too complex for Iraqi science or technology.
Khidhir Hamza, June 2002
There may be good reasons for going to war with Iraq but Iraq’s nuclear programme isn’t one of them.
US Government official, 1990
So here we go again. In October 1991, following the Gulf War, early inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) under Security Council Resolution 687 revealed that Iraq had a clandestine uranium enrichment programme based on the novel method of electromagnetic separation. This did not involve equipment normally used in nuclear power programmes and so had evaded detection. There were two sites involved in the process, Tuwaitha and Tarmiyah, but only about a kilo of uranium had been enriched by just a few per cent. At the time I estimated that it would take four or five years for Iraq to enrich sufficient uranium for a weapon.This timescale is confirmed in the report just published by the International Institute of Strategic Studies.
In the years that followed, the IAEA acquired increasingly precise knowledge of Iraq’s nuclear activities, especially after the defection in 1995 of Saddam’s son-in-law Hussein Kamel, who was responsible for the project. Iraq had obtained two complete gas centrifuges from German sources by the time it invaded Kuwait, and was hoping to copy them to produce its own. It also had substantial amounts of highly enriched uranium (HEU) supplied by France and the USSR. Before leaving Iraq in 1998, the IAEA had destroyed the Tuwaitha and Tarmiyah sites with all their equipment, removed the German centrifuges and the HEU, and destroyed most of the other sites working on the nuclear programme, such as al-Atheer, where the warhead design and construction were being carried out. In the absence of clear evidence that it has been able to rebuild these facilities despite stringent UN sanctions, one can only conclude that as far as nuclear weapons are concerned, Iraq is much less of a threat now than it was in 1991.
Tony Blair and George W. Bush do not want us to think like this. Khidhir Hamza is the source of many of the headlines claiming that Iraq is on the verge of (or already has) a nuclear weapon capability. The Guardian reported on 1 August that Iraq would have nuclear weapons by 2005, quoting testimony by Hamza to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. On 16 September, the Times, following an interview with Hamza, produced the headline: ‘Iraq “will have nuclear bomb in months”.’ In the Sunday Mirror of 22 September Hamza himself wrote: ‘I believe Saddam now has the capability to put a nuclear warhead on a missile . . . sending in UN inspectors now is useless.’
Khidhir Hamza is a Shia from Diwaniyah in southern Iraq. In the 1960s he studied physics at MIT and Florida State. He helped develop the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission in the 1970s, working in the reactor programme, and moved to the weapons programme proper in 1980, ending up as a general in the Special Security Forces involved in the warhead project. Unlike many of his senior physicist colleagues he avoided imprisonment, and unlike many of his senior Security Force and Baath Party colleagues he avoided execution. He managed to transfer from the weapons programme to al-Mansour University in Baghdad just before the Gulf War, and in 1994 slipped away to a small university in Libya. He even managed, with insider information, to make a lot of money on the Baghdad stock exchange. In 1995, after several spurned attempts, he persuaded the CIA to take him in, and to arrange for his family to be transported to the United States.
Hamza’s ghost-writer is Jeff Stein, who, according to Google, contributes to intelligence stories for a range of print and Internet media. Usually, it isn’t clear in the book what is Hamza’s and what is Stein’s. But sometimes it is: ‘The Jewish state and Iraq had been in a virtual state of war since 1948, when Palestine was dissected to make room for Jewish settlers’ is clearly Hamza, while ‘The PLO was a collection of terrorist groups, no matter how it presented itself’ is surely Stein.
Hamza’s account is vivid, but contains several errors. He says that Germany had begun developing a nuclear weapon in the 1940s and that ‘their work was picked up by the United States.’ But the Manhattan Project grew out of a memorandum that Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls at the University of Birmingham sent to the British Government in March 1940. They pointed out the fundamental principle of a nuclear weapon (and the reason it is still so difficult to make one): the necessity to separate the isotope uranium-235 from natural uranium, which consists of uranium-238 and uranium-235 in a ratio of 142 to 1. You need about 25 kilogrammes of U-235 to make a weapon. Hamza is confused about uranium enrichment (the increase in the proportion of U-235 relative to U-238). There are two normal methods: gaseous diffusion and gas centrifuge. Iraq considered both after Israel bombed its Osirak reactor in 1981, putting an end to any hope of using plutonium. Hamza writes: ‘The centrifuge process involved extracting bomb-grade fuel by spinning a uranium compound-gas inside a fast rotating cylinder. The lighter uranium at the centre of the cylinder is enriched by the fuel.’ This isn’t right: in fact the lighter uranium is the enriched fuel, although a cascade of several hundred centrifuges is needed to increase the proportion of U-235 to anywhere near the 90 per cent enrichment necessary for weapons. During a visit to the US in 1975, Hamza tells us, he looked at a nuclear accelerator which ‘was our guideway to accelerating atoms, and thus uranium enrichment’. Yet neither the diffusion nor the centrifuge method uses accelerators, because the gas involved in both processes is electrically neutral. The electromagnetic method of isotope separation (EMIS) does involve ions (charged atoms), and an accelerator might therefore be useful, but no one had thought about using EMIS in 1975. Then, at a meeting with Saddam’s son-in-law Kamel in 1987, Hamza, as he puts it now, ‘launched into . . . all the problems with uranium enrichment, from the French reactor to Jaffar’s diddling with magnets’. But the French Osirak reactor project had nothing to do with uranium enrichment: the Iraqis had hoped to use Osirak to make plutonium, the alternative route to a bomb. As for Jaffar Dhia Jaffar, he really was ‘Saddam’s bombmaker’: he had a PhD in experimental nuclear physics from Birmingham and was the senior physicist responsible for the programme. His ‘diddling with magnets’ was EMIS, which would have delivered the goods for Saddam by now had he restrained himself over Kuwait.
So what was Hamza’s role in the project? He was clearly not as senior as he makes out. In the book he frequently describes important meetings at second hand. Jaffar was not his only scientific superior: he answered to Humam al-Ghafour, Hussein al-Shahristani and Khalid Ibrahim Saeed, too. Besides, how likely is it that Saddam would have allowed his senior physicist to move to Libya without exacting retribution on his family, who remained in Baghdad? Hamza says he told a PLO representative, while he was still a PhD student, ‘I don’t know how to make a bomb,’ then adds: ‘I did, theoretically, of course.’ But did he? Nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons (at least those of the atomic rather than thermonuclear kind) are based on nuclear fission (a very large nucleus, typically uranium or plutonium, splits into lighter nuclei with an accompanying energy release). When he testified recently to a Senate Committee, Hamza was described as a nuclear engineer: a professional who works with nuclear reactors. But Hamza has no specific training in nuclear fission for either reactors or weapons. His PhD wasn’t concerned with the fission of a large nucleus but with the scattering of small nuclei or, to be precise, on how to calculate three-body forces – a very abstract topic. Solving the problem required a large amount of computation ($40,000 worth back in the late 1960s) on an old-fashioned mainframe. He went on from Florida State to Fort Valley State College in Georgia to establish a computer centre there. On his return to Iraq he became involved with the purchase of the Osirak reactor from France, but was also appointed to head a committee to buy, and then run, an IBM360 for the Nuclear Research Centre. Hamza’s CV, which is on the Web, reveals him to be a specialist in scientific computation and modelling. He ran calculations for the gas diffusion enrichment project from 1980, for the dense plasma focus project from 1988 and, though he doesn’t say so explicitly, presumably for simulations of the yield from the nuclear warhead that Iraq hoped to have once it acquired sufficient HEU. He was, in other words, a glorified computer scientist. Between 1987 and 1990, he also wrote reports on his colleagues’ work and progress. He was, in his own words, ‘Saddam’s chief snitch’. And he doesn’t seem to have had a high opinion of his colleagues: Jaffar is always wasting money or ‘diddling’, while Saeed is ‘short’ and ‘chubby’.
In his testimony to the Senate Committee on 31 July Hamza said that, according to German intelligence, ‘with more than ten tons of uranium and one ton of slightly enriched uranium . . . in its possession, Iraq has enough to generate the needed bomb-grade uranium for three nuclear weapons by 2005.’ That is correct, but of no significance. It is well known that Iraq, quite legally, has 11 tons of uranium in its possession (it actually has substantially more listed on the IAEA website, and until 1998 it was safeguarded by regular inspections). Using the ratio of about 140 to 1 of U-238 to U-235 in natural or slightly enriched uranium, and taking 25 kg as the amount of HEU needed for a bomb, it’s easy to work out that 3.5 tons (140 x 25 kg) is the amount of natural uranium needed for a bomb. So 11 tons is the amount needed to build three bombs. It is not possible, however, to construct weapons directly out of uranium or slightly enriched uranium. Hamza managed to fool some people into confusing slightly-enriched uranium with HEU. The Bishop of Oxford, for example, wrote in the Observer (4 August) that ‘the US Congress was told recently that Saddam Hussein has enough weapons-grade uranium for three nuclear bombs by 2005.’
In his interview with the Times in September, Hamza claimed that the three nuclear bombs could be made within the next few months. This ‘new estimation . . . is centred on the number of pirated centrifuges that Baghdad has been able to produce and the rapidity with which the reprocessing programme is being undertaken’. I don’t know what reprocessing has to do with it – reprocessing is used in the production of plutonium, not HEU – but how does he know about the pirated centrifuges? In the Sunday Mirror he even claimed that ‘Saddam now probably has hundreds of small centrifuges hidden around Iraq.’ Why didn’t he mention the pirated centrifuges to the Senate Committee? He hasn’t been in Iraq for eight years, so this information can’t be first-hand. Nor was he involved with the centrifuge programme, which only gets a few mentions in his book. According to Frank von Hippel, professor of public and international affairs at Princeton and a former assistant director for national security in the White House, ‘Iraq had difficulty producing reliable [centrifuge] machines’ and ‘no [centrifuge] production facility had been established by the time the effort was halted by the bombings.’ Iraq would have had to have solved many technical problems at a time of strict sanctions in order to set up a centrifuge facility since the IAEA inspectors left in 1998. Furthermore, a thousand working centrifuges would be required to produce enough HEU in one year. Nor could they function if they were ‘hidden around Iraq’: they have to be connected in a cascade.
The reason Hamza’s opinion changed so markedly between 31 July and 16 September is revealed in the Times interview. The International Institute for Strategic Studies dossier was published on 9 September, and was, in the view of Hamza’s new masters in the United States, unhelpful. Hamza was required to add some urgency to the debate.
There are two enlightening details in the book. First, Hamza claims that the Observer journalist Farzad Bazoft was executed by Saddam in March 1990 because he took earth samples to test for the presence of biological or chemical warfare agents. Unfortunately for Bazoft, his sample site was close to al-Atheer, the warhead facility, and the samples would have shown that experiments on nuclear warheads were being carried out in the vicinity. Second, he describes the problems caused for him and his family in Baghdad by a bogus story in the Sunday Times on 2 April 1995 announcing that he had been kidnapped in Greece and probably assassinated. He was actually in Libya at the time. The story reported that Hamza had confirmed a secret Iraqi weapon programme, and referred to documents confirming this. Until then the authorities in Baghdad hadn’t been concerned about his absence from Iraq, but this changed everything. He eventually discovered that the CIA had planted the story and documents in order to smoke him out. It worked: Hamza managed to get to Hungary and the US Embassy in Budapest. With some difficulty he persuaded the CIA to take him and his family to the US. They were reluctant to play ball until Hamza told the CIA man that ‘a British visa would be ready for me in a week . . . suddenly the roadblocks melted. The next morning an embassy car whisked me to the airport.’ A week later, Madeline Albright quoted the CIA-forged documents at the UN Security Council in order to prevent any relaxation of the regime of sanctions on Iraq.
Turning now to the Government assessment of the threat posed by Iraq, drawn up by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), I will restrict myself to the nuclear component as I don’t have any competence in the fields of biological and chemical warfare. The dossier is sober, and seems to be reasonably free from political interference, but it does not give a balanced view of the situation. It divides the time-scale it considers into two periods: 1971-98 and 1998-2002. But it makes more sense to distinguish three periods: 1971-91, when the UN inspectors first checked on the weapons programmes; 1991-98, when the inspectors were active; and 1998-2002, after they had gone. The IISS have chosen a method that allows a comparison to be made between any current threat and the corresponding threat in 1991. Doing it Number Ten’s way (the Government press officer I spoke to before the release of the assessment insisted that Downing Street was responsible) significantly diminishes the considerable progress the UN inspectors made between 1991 and 1998. Part Two does contain a history of the inspections, but the focus is very much on Iraq’s non-co-operation, intimidation and deception, rather than what the inspectors actually achieved. By 1998 the inspectors were confident that Iraq presented little threat, at any rate so far as nuclear weapons were concerned. ‘When I left Iraq in 1998, when the UN inspection programme ended, the [nuclear] infrastructure and facilities had been 100 per cent eliminated,’ Scott Ritter, former chief weapons inspector for Unscom, has written.Ritter is now a controversial figure in the US, having recently visited Baghdad, but Charles Duelfer, Ritter’s superior officer at Unscom, generally agrees with him. Testifying to the Senate Armed Services Committee on 27 February, Duelfer said that ‘the IAEA accounted for most of the [nuclear] programme and key facilities were destroyed.’ He did add, however, that ‘the intellectual capital remains, as does the will of the leadership to achieve a nuclear capability.’ That will, of course, has remained constant for over thirty years, but is still unsuccessful, mainly thanks to the efforts of the IAEA inspectors between 1991 and 1998.
The dossier also says that ‘Iraq has sought the supply of significant quantities of uranium from Africa.’ So what? The IAEA has told me that Iraq already has hundreds of tons of uranium at its disposal. Without enrichment facilities this material is useless for nuclear weapons, although it could conceivably be used in conventional weapons in the same way that depleted uranium is used by the UK and US. It is also possible that this African story is an intelligence sting: remember the capacitors destined for Iraq found at Heathrow in 1990 that turned out to have been planted by the FBI.
In comparison with the JIC report, the IISS assessment is an exemplary piece of work. It is clearly written and contains a full history both of the Iraqi programmes and of the UN inspectors’ work in demolishing them. On the nuclear side (and probably on the biological, chemical and missile sides, too) it has an authoritative account of the Iraqi programme before and during the Gulf War which should be essential reading for anyone interested in the effectiveness or otherwise of nuclear safeguards. It also contains an account of the ‘Crash’ programme that Kamel called for in August 1990, just after Iraq had invaded Kuwait. The plan was to use the HEU supplied by France and the Soviet Union to make one bomb. The official IAEA account, quoted by the IISS, is that the Soviet fuel was only 80 per cent U-235 and needed to be further enriched before it could be used. A cascade of fifty centrifuges was planned to achieve this. Hamza’s book doesn’t mention this, confirming he knew little about the centrifuge programme. He simply says that there was insufficient HEU for a warhead, so that ‘apocalypse was postponed.’ The HEU was of course safeguarded by the IAEA: the bomb would have had to be constructed before the inspection. But it wasn’t to be. The significance of the Crash programme is that it is the source of the IAEA estimate that in 1991 Iraq was only a few months away from a bomb. That may be so, but the estimate has no relevance now since the HEU has been removed from Iraq.
The IISS conclusion, unpopular in Washington, is that ‘of the three WMD types, nuclear weapons seem the furthest from Iraq’s grasp.’ ‘We have greater confidence,’ the report continues, ‘that Iraq’s prewar nuclear infrastructure and material assets were effectively accounted for and disarmed by 1998, compared to its prewar CBW capability.’ This made the headlines on 10 September in the Financial Times. But most newspapers seized on another conclusion in the nuclear section: ‘However, there is a nuclear wildcard. If, somehow, Iraq were able to acquire sufficient nuclear material from foreign sources, it could probably produce nuclear weapons in short order, perhaps in a matter of months.’ This conclusion was much more welcome in Washington, and President Bush used it as the focus of his speech to the UN, where the ‘matter of months’ became ‘one year’. In the Government assessment this possibility has extended to ‘between one and two years’.
The JIC and the IISS agree that Iraq does not pose a nuclear threat at present. But what if a bad fairy were somehow to deliver 50 kg of HEU to Baghdad? Then of course Iraq could rapidly build a nuclear bomb. During the Manhattan Project, far more people were employed and far more money was spent at Oak Ridge, where uranium was enriched for the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, than at Los Alamos, where the bomb was designed. The design, in fact, was so easy that there was no need to test a prototype. A gun design, to shoot a sub-critical hemisphere of HEU into another sub-critical hemisphere, is essentially all that is needed, provided that together the two hemispheres exceed the critical mass and that there’s a neutron generator to initiate the chain reaction at the right time. More than fifty countries, not counting Iraq or the nuclear weapon states, would be able to build a bomb, given sufficient fissile material. All it would require is a research institution with a reputable physics group and an army familiar with explosives. Every major Arab country, and every EU country except, perhaps, Luxembourg can call upon these assets.
However, a gun-type bomb could be delivered by plane but would be too large to fit into a missile. According to Hamza, Iraq was aware of this problem and had therefore designed an implosion bomb: a subcritical sphere of HEU which is made critical by compression. But their first design was still too large and could not be delivered by missile. This is the problem the Iraqis have presumably been working on since 1998. But, as Hamza himself points out, it is all very well to design a compact bomb for a missile; unless it is tested, no one knows whether it will work. That is why India had to break cover and have a new round of nuclear tests in 1998. So, although Iraq (and many other countries) could make a bomb if they were able to acquire sufficient HEU, it is not at all clear that they could deliver it. The US has total control of the skies over Iraq, and any plane carrying a bomb would be shot down.
Suppose, however, that al-Qaida were to obtain the 50 kg of HEU. They too could construct a gun-type bomb, and deliver it: by truck, just like the IRA. So if there is any HEU hanging around anywhere, waiting to be picked up by the likes of bin Laden, it is much more important to move it to safety than to worry about the nuclear threat posed by Iraq. Everyone who has studied the subject of wayward nuclear material has pointed to the former Soviet Union as the place where substantial quantities of both HEU and plutonium are either unaccounted for or not well guarded. Small research reactors and submarine reactors often have HEU fuel. It is astonishing that, nearly ten years after the USSR collapsed, so little has been done to secure this fissile material. If Blair and Bush are really concerned about the proliferation of nuclear weapons, they should be concentrating on this problem.
Other steps could also be taken to diminish the threat from weapons of mass destruction, as Clinton’s National Security Adviser, Sandy Berger, has pointed out. One would be for the US to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and to put pressure on India and Pakistan to do the same: this would make it much harder for states to develop small warheads for use on missiles. It is also important to agree the enforcement protocol of the Biological Weapon Convention. Neither is likely under the present US Administration.
The nuclear threat from Iraq is, in conclusion, significantly less now than it was in 1991, although there is a continuing threat from Saddam’s biological and chemical stockpile. If and when the new UN inspectors are allowed to inspect, the size of the threat will be better known and it can then be reduced. But it is unlikely that Bush and those around him will be satisfied with this: they want a second Gulf War to remove Saddam. That may in fact be easy: it is unlikely that the officer corps of the Republican Guard will stay loyal after the bombing begins – Saddam knows this and there is now a Special Republican Guard to protect Presidential sites. But it is also very risky. Charles Duelfer told the Senate Committee that even before hostilities began in 1991, Saddam had ordered missiles and bombs to be armed with biological and chemical agents, and pre-authorised their use in the event of a US move on Baghdad. Duelfer says the Iraqi leadership believes that this is the reason the US agreed to a ceasefire. US power may win the day, as it did in Afghanistan, but victory may come at a high price.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.