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Dr. Khidhir Hamza is the highest-ranking Iraqi scientist ever to defect from Iraq and live to tell about it. After earning a Ph.D. in nuclear physics from Florida State in 1968, he joined the Iraqi nuclear effort in 1972 and rapidly ascended through the ranks. In 1987, he became director general of Saddam Husayn's nuclear program. Disillusioned with Saddam, in August 1994, Dr. Hamza escaped through Iraq's northern border and defected to the United States. He, together with Jeff Stein, authored Saddam's Bombmaker (Scribner's 2000). Dr. Hamza spoke to the Middle East Forum in New York on April 2, 2001.

The Early Years

In 1967, the Arab world was soundly beaten by the Israelis in the Six Days War. To add insult to injury, post-war reports indicated that Israel had developed nuclear deterrence capabilities. I joined the Iraqi nuclear program in 1972, determined to help Iraq achieve parity with Israel. It was widely believed that Iraq needed only three or four weapons to deter Israel; a balance of terror would ensure Iraq's safety.

In 1974, I went to France to buy a reactor. From the beginning, the project was doomed. Saddam ordered us to build it without supervision. The result was a reactor with a cracked foundation. To make matters worse, we could not complain to Saddam. We were allotted quick, two-minute audiences with him; when he turned his face, we had to leave. As we fell into a very obtuse way of doing things, a hostile situation gradually developed. Two of my scientific colleagues, in fact, were jailed and tortured for their disagreements with Saddam.
In the end, this was the downfall of the project. Low morale and bad management hampered our progress.

Iraq's Invasion of Kuwait

Immediately after Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, we were commanded to build one nuclear bomb, without knowing its purpose. This devise was crude and untested. There was even a chance that the bomb could fall apart. We were terrified.
The intended target of this bomb was not U.S. forces, because our missiles were not exact enough to hit their small pockets of installations. We knew that Saddam's real target was Israel. We were petrified because we knew what the Israeli answer would be: the complete annihilation of Iraq.


Israel is a tool for Saddam. Calling for war against Israel is merely a means for him to achieve power in the region. To say that Iraqi nuclear capability is justified as a means to balance Israeli nuclear power is unacceptable. Israel is a democracy; there are checks and balances to ensure the safety of the region. In Iraq there is only Saddam. This is what makes Iraqi nuclear capability so dangerous.

Iraq's Nuclear Program Today

Today, Iraq runs its nuclear program under the very nose of the international community. If U.N. inspectors were allowed back, they would find no evidence of a nuclear program. Cleverly, Saddam distributes his nuclear program infrastructure among dozens of small corporations. The same applies for Iraq's biological and chemical weapons.

In my small group, we were responsible for enrichment of uranium by diffusion. We did this under the front of a large refinery in Baghdad. This is really quite ingenious, because a refinery and a uranium enrichment plant require similar piping, structures, compressors, and handling of gases.

My assistant, who designed bombs under me, is now running the program. Shrewdly, Saddam also has him doing seismic prospecting for oil maps. Apart from designing weapons, he engineers underground explosions that generate seismic waves in order to locate oil. When an inspector visits, all programs relating to the bomb design are put aside, and replaced with seismic prospecting maps. The bomb designer is a real expert at seismic prospecting, so he is very convincing to the inspectors.

In a 1998 New York Times interview, I stated that Iraq was three years away from nuclear capability. Sadly, inspections ceased that same year. Three years have passed, and Saddam is undoubtedly on the precipice of nuclear power.

I estimate that Saddam will have between three to five nuclear weapons by 2005. Iraq now has twelve tons of uranium and 1.3 tons of low enriched uranium. This is enough for at least four bombs already.

The Implications of a Nuclear Iraq

If Iraq can get away with building nuclear weapons, I foresee a future Middle East arms race, more militarization, more confrontation, and more aggression. Many would argue that Saddam would never dare to use his nuclear weapons. Still a real danger lies in his achieving the kind of nuclear deterrence that Israel has today. Such deterrence would allow him the capability to do whatever he pleases without serious repercussions. The result is more terrorism, more aggression, and more threats.

Should he achieve nuclear capability, Saddam has two choices. He could emulate the Israeli nuclear doctrine, whereby he would not announce his achievement, but rather leak the information. This would grant him the luxury of unofficially declaring nuclear capability without inviting international pressures, sanctions, and other measures.

More than likely, however, Saddam will simply test a nuclear bomb as a means of announcing his new power to the world. This is clearly the more dangerous of the two scenarios. Following an underground test, the whole region would be immediately transformed. The Arab street would likely put enormous pressure on Arab governments to align with Saddam against Israel. Weaker governments, like Jordan, might even lose control. Calling for the destruction of Israel, volunteers would come in droves and receive training for terrorist activity, or even war.

U.S. Policy Suggestions

I believe the best option available is deposing Saddam Husayn. This will stop the problem immediately. The U.S. government, however, does not seem to be serious about this option.

A second solution, supported by the Federation of American Scientists, is to take away the knowledge base in Iraq. Equipment and materials can always be replaced; the idea is to take away his scientists.

Unfortunately, if an Iraqi scientist leaves now, the international community cannot ensure his safety. Indeed, he cannot even enter an American embassy right now under the current policy. The Iraqi opposition is also in disarray.
When I left in 1994, there were several groups who protected me. Today, if you fled via the north of Iraq, you would likely be kidnapped by Saddam's agents and brought back to Iraq or assassinated by them. You cannot seek refuge in Jordan, either, because there has been a secret exchange program between the two countries since 1994. Under these conditions, no Iraqi scientists would ever want to attempt escape.

The U.S. government must make formal arrangements for Iraqi scientists and their families. Such arrangements were made by the United States during the height of the Cold War. When the Soviets invented the MiG fighter plane, the U.S. government offered generous rewards to lure one to the United States. This resulted in an Iraqi flying one to Israel, and asylum was arranged. Iraqi scientists must be offered a similar deal to defect.

Finally, it is important for America to support the opposition. This is a worthwhile effort, since Saddam's army is mistreated, undernourished, and on the verge of collapse. Soldiers are conscripted and then left without food or medicines. Iraqi soldiers will not fight the opposition, especially if it is supported by the United States. They would surrender to the opposition if only to secure food, medicine, shelter, and safety. Support for the Iraqi opposition in the north and south would be a great starting point to turn the troops against Saddam.


Saddam is dangerously close to achieving nuclear capability. The United States must do whatever it can to prevent this from happening. Better still, the United States should consider the removal of Saddam Husayn.

Summary account by Jonathan Schanzer, research associate at the Middle East Forum.