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Saddam and the Bomb By: Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, February 17, 2005


Mahdi Obeidi The Bomb in My Garden:  The Secrets of Saddam’s Nuclear Mastermind

(John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2004)

One of the great unresolved questions of the early twenty-first century is that of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.  How far had Saddam’s WMD programs progressed prior to the United States toppling his government in 2003?  And to what can we attribute the failures of U.S. intelligence – and virtually all the intelligence services throughout the world – in massively overestimating Saddam’s WMD capabilities?

As the creator and director of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear centrifuge program, Mahdi Obeidi is uniquely situated to help shed light on these vital questions.  His new book, The Bomb in My Garden, provides valuable insight into Saddam’s quest to obtain nuclear weapons during the 1980s, as well as the status of his nuclear weapons program after Iraq was opened up to UN inspectors following its defeat in the 1991 Gulf War.  Beyond that, the book is relevant as the United States grapples with the problem of other dictatorial regimes – such as Iran and North Korea – that are bent on developing WMDs.  The political relevance of Obeidi’s book is supplemented by a compelling narrative, which details his feverish quest to obtain the technology and training necessary to help Saddam obtain nuclear weapons, and also paints a vivid portrait of life in Baathist Iraq.

Obeidi was involved in the effort to build the Osiraq reactor in Tammuz that Israel bombed in 1981.  After Obeidi played a key role in persuading members of the French Atomic Energy Commission to sell a reactor to Iraq despite concerns that Saddam might use it to develop nuclear weapons, he learned that the international community’s fears were amply justified.  At a meeting with a number of Iraq Atomic Energy Commission heads, director Abdul Razzak al-Hashimi asked Obeidi some vague questions about whether the Osiraq reactor could fulfill “its strategic requirements,” and then declared to the room, “Look here.  You can all rest assured that my head shall be the last one to be chopped off.”  Obeidi explains that this remark spoke volumes:

 

The significance of al-Hashimi’s remarks was plain.  The Tammuz reactor was to serve a purpose so important that the head of the IAEC feared that failure would cost him his life.  Dr. al-Hashimi’s question about “strategic requirements” indicated the government’s wish to develop nuclear weapons.

 

The Israeli strike against the Osiraq reactor saved the world from learning the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iraq.  After the Osiraq reactor’s destruction, Saddam began to explore methods of producing weapons-grade material without the international community finding out.  Obeidi also got dragged into this latter project, and – in large part driven by fear for his own personal safety and that of his family – became the architect of Saddam’s program to produce highly-enriched uranium through a magnetic centrifuge program.

 

Centrifuge technology is a brilliant tool for developing weapons-grade material covertly.  Obeidi notes that “the idea for a centrifuge was based on the same principle as a dairy cream separator.”  The centrifuge cylinder creates great centrifugal force by rotating at extremely high speeds, thus separating the heavier uranium-238 isotopes from the lighter uranium-235 isotopes.  After the uranium-238 has been drawn out, the highly-enriched uranium remaining at the center can be siphoned away.  And magnetic centrifuge technology, which relies on electromagnets to support the rotor, is both silent and extremely efficient – such that “a facility for a small, yet dangerous, nuclear weapons program could be hidden inside a single warehouse.”

 

Although Obeidi does not exaggerate when he describes a successful centrifuge as “a near miracle of engineering,” he was able to create a working prototype of a magnetic centrifuge for Saddam Hussein prior to the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.  In so doing, Obeidi traveled through the United States attempting to glean the requisite knowledge from scientists whose trust in him was simply misplaced.  He realized that he was able to deceive American scientists concerning the true nature of his mission in large part because of the differences between the United States’ open society and Iraq’s dictatorship.  For example, Obeidi described his reaction to a conversation with a couple of scientists at a company in upstate New York about their addiction to golf:

 

I marveled at their carefree lives in America, with time to golf and relax, never fearing that the government would unexpectedly throw them or their families in prison.  I had nearly forgotten that such freedom could exist.  It occurred to me that this was part of what made them so gullible.  Their culture of straightforwardness and trust between people was at least partly the result of a lack of fear.  It had helped Americans develop a great nation.  But the openness of [these] people . . . also made my job easier.  I approached them with confidence and a viable story that help up to their questions, and they gave me the benefit of the doubt.

 

Of course, not all of the help provided to Obeidi was the product of naiveté.  Some Western scientists were simply corrupt, and showed no compunction over passing classified material related to the development of nuclear weapons to an erratic Middle Eastern regime.

 

Obeidi’s progress in building a prototype of a magnetic centrifuge was remarkable.  It took him and a team of about two hundred scientists less than three years to advance from near-total ignorance of centrifuge technology to successfully enriching uranium.  By the time Saddam invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Obeidi was working on producing a “cascade” – a network linking fifty centrifuges together that would allow uranium hexafloride to pass through the centrifuges as a series, becoming progressively more highly enriched until it could be used in a nuclear weapon.  The cascade could transform 70 percent enriched uranium into weapons-grade material within a matter of months.

 

Although Saddam was desperate for a nuclear weapon before battling the United States in the 1991 Gulf War, he simply invaded Kuwait too early to be able to create one.  Saddam’s scientists were unable to produce a nuclear weapon before the military showdown with the United States began; and after the war ended, Saddam was forced to allow UN weapons inspectors into Iraq.  According to Obeidi, Saddam Hussein never restarted his nuclear weapons program after the Gulf War, and by the time the 2003 war broke out, the only elements of the nuclear centrifuge program that remained hidden were centrifuge designs, reports, and prototype components that Obeidi had buried in his garden.  (Note that Obeidi’s conclusions regarding the status of Saddam’s nuclear program essentially match those of the Duelfer report, although the Duelfer report states that there was at least one other incident of a scientist involved in uranium enrichment keeping documents and technology.)

 

If Saddam did not restart his nuclear program after the first Gulf War, why were intelligence services convinced otherwise prior to the second war?  Obeidi does not analyze this question in depth, but he provides a few important clues about why the intelligence failures may have occurred.  One obvious reason was that, as the inspections progressed, Saddam Hussein constantly behaved as though he were concealing an active nuclear weapons program.  He in fact attempted to conceal in its entirety the fact that a nuclear weapons program had ever existed; to that extent, he at one point sent out a memorandum ordering the unilateral destruction of all materials related to WMD programs.

 

A related reason was that, because Saddam had gone to such great pains to conceal his WMD programs, it was impossible to verify Saddam’s assertions that he had destroyed the country’s stockpiles of unconventional arms.  Obeidi notes, for example, that “[t]he National Monitoring Directorate had declared that Iraq produced 8,500 liters of the bacterial agent anthrax during the 1980s but destroyed it all during the early 1990s.  UN inspectors calculated that Iraq had the capacity to produce about three times that amount of anthrax, and they were unable to verify the amount destroyed.  So their suspicions lingered.”

 

A third factor contributing to the intelligence failures was “the dark years,” which is what the United States and its allies dubbed the period between the time that Saddam kicked out UN inspectors in December 1998 and his reluctant decision to allow them back in during the lead-up to the 2003 war.  During that time, there was almost no foreign intelligence about what was going on inside Iraq – which triggered intelligences services’ deepest suspicions.

 

And a fourth factor contributing to these intelligence failures is the fact that Saddam himself was deceived by his subordinates.  Obeidi provides one hilarious example – telling in many ways – of a particularly evasive director general in charge of the al-Samoud missiles, who recited a poem he had written in praise of Saddam rather than giving the progress report that he was assigned.  Saddam praised the man for his literary skills and let the details of the al-Samoud project fall by the wayside.

 

The Bomb in My Garden is worth reading.  In the present political context, readers will probably be most interested in the status of Saddam’s nuclear program, which is the focus of this book review.  Given the rapid progress that Obeidi and his team made in building a state-of-the-art magnetic centrifuge for Saddam in a very short period, this book provides a stark note of caution as we consider how to deal with both Iran and North Korea.  But there are a number of other reasons to commend this book.  And one of the best reasons is Obeidi’s story itself, the tragic portrait of a brilliant young man who idealistically decided to work for the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission to help bring his struggling country into the nuclear age, but ended up toiling to build nuclear weapons for a mad dictator who, in Obeidi’s words, “was himself a weapon of mass destruction.”

 

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior terrorism analyst at the Investigative Project, a Washington, D.C.-based terrorism research center. 




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