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Khidhir Hamza is the highest-ranking Iraqi scientist ever to defect and live to tell about it. Born in 1938 in Iraq, he received a masters degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, followed by a Ph.D. in theoretical nuclear physics from Florida State University in 1968. In 1970, he was summoned back to Iraq (not to have gone would have exposed his family to punishment). Mr. Hamza joined the Iraqi nuclear effort in 1972 and made a rapid ascent through the ranks; by 1987, he was director general of the Nuclear Weapon Program, which made him Iraq's leading nuclear physicist. Through his long years of laboring for Saddam Husayn, Mr. Hamza dreamed of freedom again. Finally, in August 1994, he had his chance and escaped through the north of Iraq. Although refused admission to the United States for a year, he was eventually allowed in, soon to be joined by his wife and three sons. He now lives in the Washington, D.C. area. He is the author of Saddam's Bombmaker.1 Daniel Pipes interviewed him in New York on April 2, 2001.

Iraqi Nuclear Weapons

Middle East Quarterly: A Sunday Times report based on the testimony of Iraqi exiles asserts that Iraq not only has a nuclear device but successfully tested it on September 19, 1989, in an underground cavern along the western shores of Lake Rezzaza.2 You have an unhappy history with the Sunday Times;3 you have also explicitly stated that Saddam Husayn does not have a nuclear bomb—that he has no fissile materials currently and will need two to three years to acquire these.4 Please comment on the report.

Khidhir Hamza: This is a bunch of lies, one of those stories that Iraqi exiles tell gullible Western journalists to gain a reputation for themselves and thereby win themselves political asylum. I have figured out who the source for the Sunday Times story is, but on the record I can only say that he is a character who plays a role in my memoirs. He had a low-level job in Atomic Energy and was not someone who knew what was going on. But he has already suffered enough, and I am glad that he managed to obtain asylum with his family at last. That said, this type of news does a disservice to the process of unraveling what is really going on in Iraq, and it helps Saddam, by tainting all information about his WMD [weapons of mass destruction] programs.  

MEQ: Is this common, the spreading of untrue stories about developments in Iraq?

Hamza: I am afraid so. Another example is the story of a mobile Iraqi reactor of 1,000 megawatts, no less, that was disassembled and moved. Now do you know of anybody who can take a hot 1,000-megawatt reactor and disassemble it and move it? But the media swallowed this story, and it was printed in major American publications. 

MEQ: You have estimated that as many as 12,000 persons are working in Iraq on a nuclear device, versus only a few hundred on chemical and biological agents.5 What is the logic behind such a huge emphasis, given the difficulty of the task and the terrible dangers of using it? 

Hamza: The disparity reflects the different structures of the two projects. The chemical infrastructure is based mostly on imported technology. You build pesticide plants and then modify them to generate materials for chemical weapons. If you design the factory carefully—and we used an American design—then you basically have imported the infrastructure for a chemical weapons program complete. 

In the nuclear field we imported equipment and not plants. Plants had to be designed and built locally. This was a major challenge for a country like Iraq, and a huge infrastructure was needed to accomplish it. Lacking experience, projects were costlier and took longer to finish. We had bottlenecks that we did not know how to deal with. A chemical plant presents no such bottlenecks; it's all straight technology. 

MEQ: Your memoir contains a mixed message: on the one hand, you warn of the imminent danger of Iraqi nuclear weapons. On the other, you compare the Iraqis to Inspector Clouseau (of Pink Panther fame); you quote a colleague to the effect that the Israeli prime minister need only inspect the atomic energy agency in order to sleep soundly at night; and you tell of carelessness and corruption, huge amounts of money being paid for failed projects, bogus documents, and fake materials. Please reconcile these. 

Hamza: It is both. On the plus side, there is an enormous pressure to succeed. Americans can hardly imagine how we labored under the threat of Saddam Husayn.

On the minus side, this is the Third World, with its bad management, poorly thought-out plans, and dictators conscripting scientists and forcing them to work. Also, you have only a small core of specialists. The program may be large and involve a huge work force, but the thinking part is done by a very small core. Even in the best situation, dealing with this kind of technology is tough, though in principle it is do-able—look for example at India and Pakistan. Despite their much larger core of scientists and technology specialists, they took a long time to work out solutions to the various bottlenecks. Also, the resulting weapons were less powerful than claimed.

MEQ: How many individuals are in that small core?

Hamza: Around 200, in all the fields.

The Kuwait War

MEQ: You indicate that Iraq was within six months of deploying a nuclear weapon when Saddam Husayn invaded Kuwait; as a result of that invasion, you write, "Everything was falling apart,"6 and your nuclear efforts came to a halt. Why do you think he did not wait another half year? 

Hamza: He was going bankrupt very fast. There was a payment due in July 1990, just before the invasion, to an international consortium of Japanese, French, and other banks for loans Saddam Husayn took out, and which he barely managed to postpone. He was really in a box. The Arab states, instead of loaning him the money and getting him out of the box, made things worse by also insisting on getting their loans paid back.

MEQ: Isn't it normal to want to be repaid? You seem to be unsympathetic to Kuwait. 

Hamza: No, I admire Kuwait for its stand. According to reports we had at the time, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia wanted the Kuwaitis to pay Iraq off, just to get Saddam Husayn off their collective back. The Kuwaitis, however, had a longer range vision of the Iraq problem and refused to do this, seeing that the Iraqis would use this money to rearm and come back to torment the Gulf Arabs with those very arms. The Kuwaitis in fact had a better understanding of Saddam than did many others. They preferred to deal with a weakened Saddam rather than give him the $10 billion he demanded—as a first payment, no less—knowing he would come back at them stronger, demanding more money and who knows what else.

MEQ: Why did Saddam not use weapons of mass destruction during the Kuwait war?

Hamza: He was afraid of what the United States would do. He was also scared of the possibility of an Israeli retaliation. In brief, deterrence worked. Note that what he used against Israel was very low-tech—warheads sometimes filled not even with explosives but with concrete. It was just a warning, just a show. 

MEQ: Any lessons here for the future?

Hamza: Certainly, there are. We are dealing here with a ruler who is hugely self-centered, who cares only about himself and what happens to him. Therefore, if you threaten him personally and directly, you can intimidate him. Notice how he hides from dangers.

MEQ: He is personally fearful?

Hamza: He is haunted by fears. He has his cooks prepare three meals a day for him in all his residences, as if he is living in every one of them. He has dozens of identical sets of personal items that are placed in his palaces and hideaways so that everywhere he goes, he is at home, without carrying things around with him. This is done so that no one—no one!—is quite sure where he is staying at any moment. This pattern reflects his fear. During the Gulf war bombing, he went even further and turned up unexpectedly at people's homes. This is someone who's exceedingly scared for his life and his well-being.

MEQ: You have said that with a nuclear bomb, Saddam Husayn will have "total immunity. He will be invincible with it. He'll be the hero of the Arab world."7 Please explain in more detail how you expect Saddam Husayn would exploit this advantage. 

Hamza: If Saddam gets a nuclear bomb, I expect him to be much more aggressive in dealing with his perceived enemies, such as Kuwait, Iran, possibly Turkey, and especially Israel.

MEQ: Why especially Israel?

Hamza: Conflicts with the other states don't elevate him much in the Arab world, but taking the lead against Israel could elevate him to a leadership position—just as it did decades ago for Gamal Abdel Nasser.

MEQ: What has Gamal Abdel Nasser—ruler of Egypt from 1954 to 1970—to do with this?

Hamza: Nasser still casts a long shadow. He led the charge to "dump Israel into the sea," but instead what happened was he lost the 1967 war and with it Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula. Saddam admits that Nasser failed in detail—losing a war or two to Israel—but believes he succeeded in his larger goal of establishing the Arab identity. 

MEQ: Saddam's ambition, in short, is to be more a more successful version of Gamal Abdel Nasser?

Hamza: Yes. Saddam in many speeches idolizes Nasser and holds him up as his role model. Nasser also took in Saddam and more-or-less protected him in Egypt during the early 1960s. Even today, Nasser remains his idol, somewhat as he is for Libya's Mu‘ammar al-Qadhdhafi.

MEQ: It is remarkable that thirty years on these two Arab leaders are still directly inspired by Abdel Nasser. 

Hamza: Nasser may be a failed example, but he's still Saddam's role model because he initiated the modern call for Arab unity, created a large following, dreaming of an Arab renaissance, worked for Arab strength, and dreamed of Arab-this and Arab-that. However, Nasser was an empty drum. He created no infrastructure for rebuilding the Arab world (or even Egypt for that matter) and brought into being a new style of military dictatorship in the region. In this, Saddam is his loyal follower.

MEQ: And if Saddam succeeds in doing more than his hero did? 

Hamza: If Saddam can achieve what Nasser failed to do, and especially if he manages to arm himself with nuclear weapons, he will be in a position to recruit "volunteers," rouse the Arab street, and get it to pressure Arab governments to align with him. At this point, he will be a very major force in the region and perhaps beyond. If he manages to pressure the governments to go his way, I can foresee the whole region more or less falling under his command.

MEQ: Would you agree that Saddam sees two ways as his means to get there? One is via weapons of mass destruction, and the other is via control of Persian Gulf oil?

Hamza: Yes, those two define his means of gaining power. 

United Nations Inspections

MEQ: Your experience with the International Atomic Energy Agency led you to conclude that "Iraq hoodwinked the IAEA during the 1970s and 1980s."8 You found the agency not just toothless but even an obstacle to controlling nuclear weaponry. Can you propose ways to improve it? Or does it need to be closed down and a new organization established? 

Hamza: The IAEA cannot be remade in a different way. It represents the United Nations system and its distinctive way of working. There is no other way to put together an organization that would be more assertive than the IAEA. If one did, governments would simply deny it access, and it would die. You, thus, have a choice between a well-designed organization that is totally denied access, and so totally incapable of doing its job, or an organization that can at least act as an intelligence gathering service about current developments.

MEQ: Can the IAEA be more effective?

Hamza: Yes, if it has help coming from a power like the United States, it can do more. On its own, however, as it was in the 1980s, it remains of doubtful value.

MEQ: You were not impressed by the United Nations agency charged with dismantling the Iraqi arsenal after the Kuwait war, the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM). UNSCOM went out of business in 1999. What advice would you give its successor, the U.N. Monitoring, Verification, and Inspections Commission (UNMOVIC)?

Hamza: UNMOVIC is attempting to be a milder version of UNSCOM. It is a lot more constrained than UNSCOM was because it is doing things by the book. UNSCOM was more or less used by the United States for information gathering. But, to reduce the accusations that it is manipulated by the United States, UNMOVIC is structured differently from UNSCOM. The U.S. role is diminished in terms of the number of American inspectors, but Washington still holds the purse strings and has a major managerial role.

MEQ: Are there long-term consequences of the UNSCOM collapse?

Hamza: UNSCOM has done real damage to U.N. organizations of this type, which will hereafter always be branded as toys for the United States, no matter how objective they are. Iraq will use this, you can be sure, to its advantage. UNMOVIC is also in the unenviable position of being squeezed in a vice between the conflicting demands of the nuclear states.

The Raid on Osirak

MEQ: Richard Butler says that the Israeli raid on Osirak "set back Iraq's efforts" to build a nuclear bomb.9 In contrast, Shimon Peres has said, "It was a mistake to bomb the nuclear reactor in Iraq."10 Where do you stand on this issue? 

Hamza: With Shimon Peres, as I have told the Israeli media. 

MEQ: Why?

Hamza: What the Israelis did, in effect, was take out a project under international inspection and a French maintenance contract—two organizations from outside Iraq monitoring what's going on there. Most probably the maintenance contract would have been renewed, as we needed parts and all kinds of help.

MEQ: Was it not easy to cheat at Osirak and build nuclear devices?

Hamza: Not so easy. Had we cheated on Osirak, we had only a limited window into which we could put in uranium, get it irradiated, and get it out. We had a small Italian reprocessing lab with a limited capability to reprocess what we irradiated, so it could have taken years to get even small quantities of plutonium out. Plutonium, being more radioactive and much more toxic than uranium, represents a more difficult path to the bomb in terms of costs and in terms of technology. Also, plutonium offers only one option, the implosion bomb.

MEQ: By destroying Osirak, what replaced it?

Hamza: We went from a program with 400 workers to one with 7,000 workers, from a $400 million capital program to a $10 billion one. (I mention only capital costs because salaries in Iraq conventionally are not counted). From plutonium in small quantities, we went to a program that could produce uranium in almost unlimited quantities. We also turned to a much simpler design that requires less testing—in other words, with uranium, we could have a nearly assured gun-type bomb with much less work.

MEQ: Any other consequences?

Hamza: Yes, by destroying Osirak, which was built by the French, the Israelis forced us to initiate a program totally designed and built by Iraqis. This resulted in our acquiring the hands-on experience of building a nuclear facility. As a result, Iraqi scientists are today less dependent on outside help; now, if something is destroyed, they can rebuild it. 

By destroying Osirak, in short, the Israelis inadvertently turned Iraqis from importers into self-reliant bombmakers.

Extracting Iraqi Scientists

MEQ: You have said that the U.S. government "is not interested in any regime change" in Iraq.11 What would you need to see to be convinced otherwise? 

Hamza: Lethal training of the Iraqi opposition.  That's the only thing that will convince me. Support them with money, train them in management, give them computers, sure. But if there's no lethal training, then the U.S. government is not serious.

MEQ: You have also proposed that the U.S. government develop a plan to help Iraqi scientists escape, arguing that this would cripple Saddam's efforts to amass weapons of mass destruction better than the destruction of those weapons. How many scientists would you need to encourage to leave in order to cripple the nuclear program? 

Hamza: Not many, just twenty-five people or so. If that many of the key people were gone, it would put a crimp in the possibility of resolving bottlenecks, getting things running smoothly, putting things together, or getting things organized. It's the thinking they do; our goal should be to take the brain out. So even if there is some rote work done, when there are roadblocks, there is nobody to take care of them.

MEQ: Please explain the reasoning behind extracting the scientists. 

Hamza: The U.N. inspectors decided from the beginning that they needed to worry only about equipment. Get the equipment out, the assumption went, and Iraq—presto—is disarmed. But that makes no sense. If you dismantled Los Alamos, would that mean the United States is disarmed? Obviously not. Iraq is nowhere near the U.S. level in nuclear technology, but the principle remains the same. Although supported by some imports, the Iraqi weapons program is basically indigenous. It is a locally designed and implemented program. It's no longer as Osirak was, a foreign program put together in Iraq. That's my major criticism of the inspection process.

MEQ: IAEA and UNSCOM inspectors wrongly assumed that the program is fundamentally imported, and it is not? Were it imported, destroying it would suffice. But being indigenous, the scientists rather than the materiel and equipment must be addressed?

Hamza: Exactly. They made a mis-assessment that Iraqis are a bunch of users who own equipment. A scientist is not an important part of the process; it's the equipment. Get the equipment out, leave the scientists without it, and the problem is solved.

MEQ: So you're saying that the U.N. understanding in 1991 was ten years out of date. It reflected the realities of 1981?

Hamza: Right. For example, look at what happened with regard to the Iraqi nuclear weapon program. By 1995, the IAEA had accepted Iraq's claim that there was only a small research unit doing weaponization. In other words, it believed that there was no serious nuclear weapon program.

MEQ: What changed that perception?

Hamza: The revelations that came from Husayn Kamil after he defected, specifically from the "chicken farm documents," opened the IAEA's eyes. After his defection, the Iraqi government provided the inspectors with more than a half-million pages of documents that showed how easily deceived the inspectors were, as well as the size and sophistication of the nuclear weapons program.

MEQ: So, in other words, in 1990-91 major developments took place in Iraq which you were a part of that the outside world did not understand. Does that also explain why you had such a cool reception from the U.S. government? Why in 1994, it did not think you had anything to offer?

Hamza: By 1994, when I defected, the U.S., UNSCOM, and the IAEA were all convinced that the inspections were more or less finished. They were on the verge of announcing that "Iraq is disarmed." So when I came out of Iraq and spoke about major Iraqi weapons sites and so on, some of the Americans were laughing at me.

MEQ: You were taken seriously only after Kamil fled Iraq?

Hamza: Apparently so.

MEQ: Isn't the key element that at some time between your defection and your acceptance a year later, the U.S. intelligence community came to understand your point about Iraq having an indigenous capability.

Hamza: Yes, and when it realized that, it saw I could be of use as a scientist, even though I did not carry any equipment with me.

MEQ: And that change dating to 1995 remains in place?

Hamza: In 1995, after the defection of Kamil, a new evaluation took place. A more detailed accounting of scientists and their work began. But by then the Iraqis also perceived this change in attitude and started to hide their scientists. The new posture is that the scientists now work in the private sector, meaning that the Iraqi government supposedly does not know where they are. So, when the inspectors got smart, so did the Iraqis. It is not a static situation. If you go in with a different question, they will give you a different answer.

When the inspectors started caring about the scientists, the scientists disappeared. You have a thoroughly changed situation, with atomic energy now in the private sector and working for several contracting branches of the Iraqi government. The bomb is one of these projects, though it's just not the declared one. The other projects are legal, and you're welcome to come inspect them.

MEQ: What does this mean?

Hamza: It means that Iraq is winning. It has taken care of its knowledge base by spreading it around the country under legitimate umbrellas. Finding the scientists is now a much more difficult task than it was a few years ago. The opportunity to remove the scientists from Iraq is pretty much gone. What can be achieved now with much harder work is a small fraction of what could have been done earlier.

Also, the regime weakened UNSCOM and eventually destroyed it. And with a weaker organization in its place—not weaker on its own, for the inspectors are of the same caliber, but rather more constrained—the Iraqis have an even easier time. They will not give UNMOVIC access until they get what they want, which is the removal of sanctions, and that is likely never to happen. 

The Middle East

MEQ: "I hoped I'd never see this part of the world again," you wrote of the Middle East. "I was leaving behind a fetid world of dictatorship and corruption. . . . I could not leave fast enough."12 Please reflect a minute on your feelings toward your own culture, religion, and people. What must happen for the Middle East to open up and become a place you would like to live in?

Hamza: The main problem is the lack of democracy in the Middle East. Frankly, it is a much nicer region to live in than I find the West to be, even though it lacks the amenities available here. The main problem is that the Middle East is still dominated by systems of government that are centuries behind.

MEQ: The key problem is the system of government?

Hamza: It's democracy. That explains why so many Arabs want to live in Lebanon despite its wars, because it's a little more democratic than the rest of the region.

MEQ: When you say democracy in the Middle East, does that include free markets?

Hamza: Yes. They can't be a separate entity. When you have democracy without free markets, it just somehow finds a way to disintegrate.

MEQ: You dedicate your book to the people of Iraq who have suffered for eight centuries. Eight centuries must be a reference to the Mongolian invasion. Things have been bad for that long?

Hamza: Iraq was the center of power before that invasion, and Iraqis were the oppressors, not the oppressed—they ran the region from Pakistan to Algeria. For the last eight centuries, they are the oppressed.

1 Khidhir Hamza with Jeff Stein, Saddam's Bombmaker: The Terrifying Inside Story of the Iraqi Nuclear and Biological Weapons Agenda (New York: Scribner's, 2000).
2 Gwynne Roberts, "Was This Saddam's Bomb?" Sunday Times, Feb. 25, 2001.
3 Jon Swain, "Disappearance of an Iraqi Nuclear Expert," Sunday Times, Apr. 2, 1995, wrongly stated in a front-page story that, after faxing the newspaper fifty secret documents from Greece showing the revived Iraqi efforts to build an atomic bomb, Khidhir Hamza had been killed by Iraqi intelligence agents. In fact, Hamza had never set foot in Greece nor contacted the Sunday Times, much less was he dead. This article put Hamza and his family "in immediate, mortal danger" (Hamza with Stein, Saddam's Bombmaker, p. 296) at a time when he was trying to lie low in Libya. Khidhir theorizes that this was the CIA's way of prompting him to make contact with it—as he did in fact do.
4 BulletinWire, Dec. 1, 2000, at http://www.bullatomsci.org/bulletinwirearchive/BulletinWire001202.html.
5 "Remarks," The 7th International Non-Proliferation Conference, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Jan. 11-12, 1999, at http://www.ceip.org/programs/npp/Hamza.htm.
6 Hamza with Stein, Saddam's Bombmaker, p. 238.
7 "60 Minutes II", Jan. 27, 1999, at http://www.nci.org/60min2-Iraq.htm.
8 Khidhir Hamza, "Inside Saddam's Secret Nuclear Program." The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Sept./Oct. 1998.
9 Richard Butler, "Why Saddam Husayn Loves the Bomb," Middle East Quarterly, Mar. 2000, p. 71.
10 Ha'aretz, Dec. 24, 1995.
11 washingtonpost.com, Nov. 14, 2000, at http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/liveonline/00/world/mideast/Hamza1114.htm.
12 Hamza with Stein, Saddam's Bombmaker, pp. 313-15.