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Frmr NW Director on Iraq NW Program (NYT Mag 1 Oct 00)
New York Times Magazine
1 October 2000

Saddam's Bomb 

Khidhir Hamza, once Iraq's leading nuclear physicist, defected five years ago and, so far, has 
lived to tell about it. In his new memoir, he recounts the inside story of how Saddam almost built 
an atomic weapon. 


The Wal-Mart on Route 3 in Spotsylvania County, Va., about 50 miles south of Washington, is not the 
sort of place where you would expect even a whiff of Middle Eastern intrigue. Yet one humid morning 
in August, Khidhir Hamza, once a high-ranking Iraqi nuclear physicist and now a defector, 
experienced a moment there as chilling as anything out of a Hitchcock movie. As he picked through a 
stack of shirts, Hamza looked up to see before him two people he knew from Baghdad, the wife and 
daughter of a senior official on the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission. 

The 61-year-old Hamza is not a man who believes in coincidence. As the wife expressed her delight 
at bumping into him after so many years, Hamza pretended not to recognize her. He also carefully 
maneuvered his shopping cart between them, fearing she might draw close enough to prick him with a 
poison-tipped instrument - a technique favored by Saddam's assassins. 

"It was terrifying," Hamza says in his accented English, which he speaks slowly, with a deep voice. 
"What were they doing there? I couldn't ask them. So I pretended they had confused me for someone 
else. Then I asked them who they thought I was, but they wouldn't answer. I could see from the 
sarcastic smiles on their faces that they didn't believe me." Hamza excused himself and hurried out 
of the store. A few weeks later, as he pulled his car into the Wal-Mart parking lot, Hamza saw the 
woman again, this time with her husband. Shaken, he kept driving. 

The episodes at Wal-Mart keep Hamza awake at night because he knows from long experience how Saddam 
Hussein operates. He knows, for example, that when Saddam wants someone eliminated, he often 
chooses a friend or relative of the victim to perform the task - not only to get inside the 
defenses of his target but also to test the loyalty of his designated assassin. Hamza has seen 
friends liquidate friends under Saddam's orders to kill or be killed. 

"They always send someone you know," Hamza told me a few weeks after the incident. "With Saddam, no 
one can be sure who somebody really is. You can never know who is who." 

Hamza also knows that Saddam has good reason to want him dead. Before he defected to the United 
States in 1995, Hamza was the director general of Saddam's secret program to build a nuclear bomb, 
a three-decade effort that nearly succeeded. When he fled, Hamza took the secrets of the weapons 
program with him, disclosing them to the Central Intelligence Agency in detailed briefings and 
later going public with his story in interviews, lectures and TV appearances. For now, Hamza has 
the unusual distinction of being the highest-ranking Iraqi scientist ever to defect and live to 
tell about it. 

But he may be pushing his luck. Next month, Scribner will publish Hamza's memoir, "Saddam's 
Bombmaker." The book not only recounts how he and a team of scientists secretly designed and nearly 
built a nuclear device; it also provides a rare glimpse of life in the presidential palace. There 
are firsthand descriptions of Saddam's impulsive murder and torture of subordinates, his drunken 
rages, his sexual exploitation of women and his paranoia about germs. There are new charges about 
Saddam's use of human guinea pigs in biological-warfare experiments. And Hamza alleges that during 
the Persian Gulf war the Iraqi leader deliberately positioned stockpiles of chemical and biological 
agents in the path of advancing American troops. Hamza also warns that Saddam remains determined to 
reconstitute his nuclear bomb program and still has the scientists to do so. 

In the shadowy world of intelligence organizations and defectors, it is often difficult to know 
what is really going on. Were the people Hamza encountered at the Wal-Mart assassins or merely 
innocent shoppers? You can't know. But those who worry about Hamza's safety say that an incident in 
McLean, Va., last year provides a cautionary tale. There, a 63-year-old Iraqi businessman named 
Fuad Taima was found professionally murdered in his home, along with his American wife and their 
16-year-old son. After 18 months, the crimes still remain unsolved. What the lead investigator, 
Bradley Garrett, of the F.B.I., can confirm is this: the assassin was a Middle Easterner and a 
skilled killer; the Taima family knew him and let him into the house; and the murder of Taima's 
wife and son was a pointed message to others. 

"There is a very important fact about Saddam that people do not tend to take into account, and that 
is his need for revenge," says Rend Rahim Francke, the Baghdad-born executive director of the Iraq 
Foundation, a democracy and human rights group in Washington. "You don't know what we're dealing 
with here. It's pretty beastly." 

Hamza lives south of Washington in one of the many new subdivisions that have homogenized the 
communities along Interstate 95 heading toward Richmond. When I arranged to visit him at his home 
recently, it was only a few days after the second Wal-Mart episode, and he insisted that an 
associate drive me while I wore a blindfold. He apologized for the inconvenience but said he 
couldn't take the chance that I might reveal where he lived. "They read, you know," he told me on 
the telephone, referring to Saddam's security men. "They look for clues." 

When I arrive a few days later, Hamza is waiting outside his house, wearing dark slacks and a white 
shirt. He is a short, stocky man, with black hair and dark, intense eyes. He suggests we drive to a 
restaurant nearby for lunch. There I begin to sense the loneliness of a defector's life. As we 
enter the restaurant, Hamza stops briefly to chat in Arabic with the owner, who is Palestinian. 
When he returns to the table, I ask Hamza if the owner ever asks him about his past. "They don't 
really ask questions," he says quietly. "If they do, I tell them I'm an ex-college professor from 
Hamza shuns any contact with Iraqi opposition groups, convinced that they are thoroughly 
infiltrated by Saddam's agents. He is also leery of Iraqis working at gas stations and convenience 
stores; he fears they might serve as lookouts for Saddam. For the same reason, he stays away when 
Iraqi entertainers come to the Washington area. 

After lunch, Hamza takes me back to his house, a modest white rambler, where he introduces me to 
his wife, Souham, a composed, rather formal woman. She sets out coffee and a creme caramel she has 
prepared, then excuses herself, apologizing for a bad back. 

As Hamza tells it, he gave little thought to returning to Iraq after receiving his doctorate in 
physics from Florida State in 1968. But that was before an Iraqi agent came calling at tiny Fort 
Valley State College in Georgia, where Hamza was teaching in 1970. The agent made it clear that 
Hamza was expected to pay back government loans by working for the regime, increasingly dominated 
by Saddam, then Iraq's vice president. In a foretaste of Saddam's heavy-handed methods, the agent 
warned Hamza that his refusal could mean the arrest and torture of his father. 

At first, Hamza said, he was seduced by well-paid employment at a civilian center in Baghdad that 
researched the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. But after a year on the job, government agents 
presented him with another offer he couldn't refuse: a senior post on the secret team working to 
build a nuclear bomb. Refusal was never an option, as he understood after his first face-to-face 
encounter with Saddam. During an unannounced inspection of his new office, Saddam suddenly exploded 
in anger at Hamza for a seemingly harmless oversight - not framing some pictures of eminent 
scientists that had been tacked up on a wall outside his office. 

"Hours later, when my shakes finally went away, I figured it out," Hamza writes. "He'd sensed some 
independence in me, and made the only point he wanted to make: he was in charge. Anyone who 
challenged him did so at the risk of his life. It had nothing to do with the pictures. For months, 
at a distance, I had assessed him as rather clever. But now I saw he was a killer." 

Hamza says he and his fellow scientists were unwilling participants in the clandestine bomb 
program, kept in line by Saddam's punishments and rewards. He says Saddam ordered colleague after 
colleague dragged off to jail and severely beaten for failing to produce results. After their 
release, they would be placated with gifts of cash, cars and houses, "as if nothing had happened." 

In July 1979, just days after Saddam seized complete power from President Ahmed al-Bakr, a friendly 
official of the ruling Baath Party invited Hamza to watch a video. "He said I would find it 
interesting," Hamza says. The opening scene showed a smiling Saddam, surrounded by top party 
leaders, sitting in a large conference room at the Presidential Palace. Standing at a lectern, one 
of Saddam's aides read out a list of names of "conspirators." Saddam ordered them to stand, and 
armed guards pushed them through a side door. Though Hamza didn't know it at the time, he was 
watching Saddam's first major purge. 

"The next scene was in a courtyard," Hamza says. "All those who had been taken out of the 
conference room were there. Some were standing against the wall. Others were kneeling with their 
eyes blindfolded. Then the shooting started." The camera focused on those who were doing the 
shooting. "This was not a regular execution squad," Hamza says. "The shooters were party members, 
people I know. One of them was my own boss. People were being forced to shoot their own friends, 
people they had eaten with, gone out with, people they had known all their lives. Men were 

When the video was finished, Hamza says, the party official turned to him in disgust and said: "We 
are now cannibalizing ourselves. These are not people you don't know. These are your friends. One 
day, I might be asked to shoot you. And I would, because my own head would be on the line." 

With those grim images in his mind, Hamza focused all his energies on developing the bomb. He led 
secret missions to Europe and the former Soviet Union to acquire bomb technology, carefully 
covering his tracks to avoid assassination by Israeli agents. On trips to the United States, he was 
able to glean invaluable guidance by studying scientific journals and technical accounts of 
America's bomb effort, all of which were open to scholars. Even Israel's 1981 bombing of Iraq's 
Osirak nuclear reactor failed to halt the program. If anything, Hamza says, it moved it into high 
gear as Saddam defiantly poured billions of dollars into the effort and threatened more torture for 
any scientist who faltered. 

Over the next decade, Hamza says, he reaped lavish rewards - new cars, money, membership in 
Baghdad's exclusive Hunting Club - as he climbed the ranks to director of weaponization. Thanks to 
Hamza's efforts, Iraq stood only a few months away from building a nuclear device when the allies 
began bombing during the gulf war. 

Finally, in 1993, two years after the war ended, the body of a senior nuclear procurement officer 
was found in a ditch, prompting Hamza to begin to plot his escape. But it was not until 1994 that 
he was able to slip out of Baghdad into the "no-fly zone" in northern Iraq, controlled by 
opposition groups with connections to the C.I.A. There, using an opposition leader's encrypted 
telephone, he contacted C.I.A. headquarters outside Washington to announce his readiness to defect. 
To Hamza's utter dismay, however, the C.I.A. turned down his offer. Now he was stranded, the clock 
ticking on how soon Saddam would notice his absence. 

Warren Marik, one C.I.A. officer who spoke to Hamza that day, told me, "We had no idea of his 
importance." But Marik, now retired from the agency, added that Hamza had another mark against him: 
the opposition figure who put him in contact with the C.I.A. - Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi 
National Congress, had fallen out of favor with the White House. Marik says the C.I.A. essentially 
dismissed Hamza as "unacceptable by association." Later, the C.I.A., realizing its mistake, brought 
him in from the cold, and later still arranged for the clandestine exfiltration of his family from 

As a matter of policy, the C.I.A. does not comment one way or the other on defectors. But a United 
States official, speaking on condition of anonymity, opened the door a crack to say that Hamza was 
"helpful to the community's understanding of weapons of mass destruction programs, specifically 
nuclear issues, and what Iraq was up to in the period he was there." 

A happy ending, of sorts. But like many defectors, Hamza remains tethered to his past, and the book 
is his attempt at redemption. "I did a tremendous amount of evil," he says. "Now I'm making up for 
it. It's one thing to know things from the inside. But it's another thing to say the things you 

In his book, Hamza is particularly critical of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which 
monitors nuclear programs around the world. He describes how Saddam's spies easily infiltrated the 
agency, enabling the regime to stay a step ahead of the inspectors. In the late 1970's, he says, 
Baghdad quietly cultivated a close relationship with the late Maurizio Zifferero, who represented 
Italian companies that built Iraq's plutonium separation plants. Later, Zifferero became the leader 
of the I.A.E.A.'s inspection team for Iraq. Hamza says that Saddam's top lieutenants referred to 
Zifferero as "our man at the I.A.E.A." 

Hamza maintains that it was only after his defection, and that of his former boss, Gen. Hussein 
Kamel, Saddam's son-in-law, that inspectors learned the full extent of the nuclear program. 
(Promised amnesty by Saddam, Kamel returned to Iraq, where he was killed in a shootout with Iraqi 
security forces in 1996.) Hamza says it was his information that helped inspectors uncover Saddam's 
sprawling secret nuclear weapons center at Al Altheer, outside Baghdad, and other sites. Most 
important, Hamza says he was the first to identify Iraq's senior nuclear scientists and tell the 
C.I.A. where to find them. More than anything else, he asserts, it was the demands of the United 
Nations Special Commission's inspectors to know what these scientists were doing, as opposed to 
where weapons were hidden, that led Saddam to abort international inspections in late 1998. 

"For a while, it was successful," Hamza says of the inspectors' efforts after his briefings. "But 
it was probably too successful." 

The International Atomic Energy Agency won't comment on the specifics of Hamza's criticism. It 
denies that its inspectors were soft on Iraq before the war, saying that under the Nuclear 
Nonproliferation Treaty they were allowed to inspect only those installations that Iraq had 
declared. As for Hamza's role in exposing Iraq's duplicity after the war, the organization says 
that he has exaggerated his importance. 

Meanwhile, there are signs that Saddam has resumed his nuclear weapons program, just as Hamza 
warned. Over the past six months, says Richard Butler, the former chief United Nations weapons 
inspector, credible reports have been received indicating the movement of Iraqi atomic scientists 
and technicians to a site outside Baghdad. "They're domiciled there," Butler told me. "They sleep 
and eat there and work there. And that raises the question of whether they are back in the business 
of seeking to design and build a nuclear explosive device." 

Given that there is little prospect of resuming international inspections, Hamza, with the help of 
David Albright, an arms control specialist in Washington, has put together his own proposal for 
blocking Saddam: lift all sanctions against Iraq - provided Baghdad permits its senior nuclear 
scientists and their families to immigrate to the West. Hamza believes the resulting brain drain 
would thwart Saddam's nuclear aspirations for years to come. "Lifting of sanctions would be a big 
reward for Saddam," he argues. "At the same time, the loss of his scientists would be 
irreplaceable. He can replace equipment, but he can't replace scientists." 

As long as Saddam is in power, Hamza will face the question of whether the Iraqi leader will stand 
by while he speaks out - especially as Saddam shows new confidence over the end of weapons 
inspections and the failure of economic sanctions. "I worry a little more," says Albright, 
president of the Institute for Science and International Security. "Right now I don't think they 
would do anything. He's so public that it would be obvious that they assassinated him. What he has 
to worry about is what looks like an accidental death, and I think he should protect himself 

Hamza says he has been receiving anonymous and untraceable calls on his unlisted telephone number 
from people speaking Iraqi-accented Arabic. "They say things like, We know you are an American 
agent' or just, You're dead,"' he says. Hamza is reluctant to seek F.B.I. protection, fearful that 
it might draw attention to him. 

Hamza says he'll probably move soon, a change he and his wife have been considering for some time. 
His plans to promote his memoir with advertised bookstore appearances and lectures might have to be 
altered or shelved entirely. Hamza's situation now resembles that of another author, Salman 
Rushdie, whose book "The Satanic Verses" earned him a public death sentence from Iranian religious 
authorities, who considered it blasphemous. 

As much as he hates Saddam, Hamza still sees the wisdom in a remark the dictator made in one of 
their meetings. "He once told me: If you are a believer in God, and you get killed following a 
certain path, then you are rewarded with heaven and you are a great man. But you are a greater man 
if you are not a believer. Because then you do it out of personal commitment. You know there is no 
reward on the other side.' 

"I do what I do not because I expect some reward in heaven," Hamza insists. He smiles confidently. 
He is not a very religious man. Nevertheless, for Khidhir Hamza, the price of redemption seems to 
be rising. 

Jonathan Broder is a Washington-based correspondent for and a senior writer for The 
Jerusalem Report. [<]

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