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[casi] Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction: A Net Assessment

Norman Dombey
Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction: A Net Assessment

 Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man who Built Iraq's Secret
Weapon by Khidhir Hamza and Jeff Stein | Touchstone, 342 pp, 10.00

Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Assessment of the British
Government | Stationery Office | Link:

Those who would measure the timetable for Saddam's atomic programme in
years may be seriously underestimating the situation and the gravity of the

George Bush, November 1990

He tried [12 years ag0] 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

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

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.


* LRB, 24 October 1991.

 War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know (Profile, 78 pp.,
4.99, 23 September, 1 86197 636 4).

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