Hunting deadly treasure in Iraq

Posted in Iraq | 14-Mar-05 | Author: Gary LaMoshi| Source: Asia Times

The Bomb in My Garden: The Secrets of Saddam's Nuclear Mastermind, by Mahdi Obeidi and Kurt Pitzer

Saddam Hussein's Iraq enriched uranium using a secret centrifuge program built with technology and components acquired discreetly, often illegally, from overseas. The program brought Iraq to the threshold of creating nuclear weapons.

The year of this breakthrough was 1990, and the centrifuge project never progressed from experimental success to the production stage. The crash program rose from the ashes of Israel's "anticipatory self-defense" strike on Iraq's Tammuz nuclear reactor in 1981, days before the plant went into operation. That raid destroyed the 40-megawatt reactor with legitimate scientific purposes and that would have produced partially enriched uranium. During the Iran-Iraq War and in the prelude to the first Gulf War, Saddam's regime accelerated its drive to join the nuclear club.

The key challenge facing Iraq, and other nuclear-weapons aspirants, was obtaining weapons-grade fissionable material, uranium or plutonium. Mahdi Obeidi, the engineer in charge of Iraq's nuclear enrichment program, reveals in his new book how Iraq pursued its nuclear ambitions, and how the program lay dormant, symbolized by the centrifuge secrets buried in Obeidi's garden in Baghdad, for more than a decade.

The title of Obeidi's book, The Bomb in My Garden, is a black-comedic pun. It signifies the centrifuge components and design plans hidden beneath the shade of Obeidi's lotus tree. The title also refers more explicitly to the bomb that crashed into his back-yard toolshed, a few feet short of his lotus tree and his daughters' bedroom, during the US siege of Baghdad in 2003. That bomb, which failed to detonate, began Obeidi's drama with the US occupying forces.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Obeidi wanted to turn over his hidden secrets to the victors. Already well known to weapons inspectors, he feared arrest by the US forces as well as reprisals from the remnants of Saddam's regime if they discovered he'd contacted the occupying forces. Obeidi tried to approach US authorities in Iraq in the days following the fall of Baghdad but encountered chaos. In desperation, he reached former US weapons inspector David Albright in Washington via a reporter's satellite phone - the local phone system had been destroyed - and began back-channel negotiations to relinquish the centrifuge-program remnants, avoid prison, and ensure his family's safety.

This ballet of clandestine meetings with intelligence agents, identified by first names only, seemed to be succeeding until troops burst into Obeidi's home (through his garden) one morning, forcing his family to lie belly down on the living room floor. The soldiers handcuffed Obeidi, still in his pajamas, and hauled the engineer to a makeshift prison at the Baghdad airport. Within hours, a US officer apologized and delivered Obeidi back home to his astonished family. Finally, in June 2003, Obeidi and his family left Iraq for Kuwait and resettled in an undisclosed location in the United States, a happy ending.

The bulk of The Bomb in My Garden covers Obeidi's work during the 1980s, after the bombing of Tammuz, to find alternative means to obtain enriched uranium. Educated at the Colorado School of Mines in the US as a petroleum engineer, then dispatched for a PhD in materials engineering at University College of Swansea in Wales, Obeidi joined the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission, an organization that offered the more formidable scientific challenge of nuclear research. The book explains the technology behind the bomb-building program in terms for general readers. For years, Obeidi let his scientist's curiosity blind him to the consequences of giving Saddam Hussein a nuclear option.

Fear also contributed to Obeidi's dedication to the nuclear-weapons project. He describes the terror under Saddam - Obeidi calls him Iraq's real "weapon of mass destruction" - where scientists received orders they could not refuse with deadlines in weeks for projects that would normally take years. Obeidi retreated to his garden to escape suspected bugging devices in his house, saying he even feared speaking frankly to his wife.

Obeidi also notes that economic sanctions after the Gulf War had made most Iraqis dependent on government rations, tightening Saddam's grip and heightening his power. In this climate of fear, dishonesty and delusion dominated. Underlings told bosses what they wanted to hear rather than risk reprisals, right up to the regime's highest levels. Even during the years of sanctions, while Obeidi worked on industrial projects, Saddam's men pestered him about restarting the centrifuge program, an impossible dream under the global spotlight. On the eve of the 2003 invasion, many Iraqis believed regime propaganda and expected to rout the infidels.

In a very readable narrative with the elements of a spy thriller, Obeidi recounts how he and his team acquired specialized material to make high-speed centrifuges for uranium enrichment. They used a variety of cover stories, claiming they wanted items such as specialty steel and magnets for other industrial applications, feigning ignorance about potential lethal uses for equipment and staying beneath the international nuclear non-proliferation security radar. Western ambivalence toward Iraq in the 1980s likely contributed to their success, or at least turned a blind eye to their activities. As US president Ronald Reagan's emissary to Saddam Hussein, Donald Rumsfeld, can tell you, many in the West favored Iraq over Iran, fresh from its Islamic revolution, in their eight-year standoff.

Obeidi's overseas academic and professional associates and his scientific legitimacy opened doors, including obtaining from Italy key centrifuge blueprints that were more tightly held in the US. Obeidi's group also utilized a network of Iraqi government front companies, diplomatic contacts, and outright criminals to procure parts and expertise for the program.

Though he doesn't blow his own trumpet, the book underlines Obeidi's engineering brilliance. To solve the riddle of nuclear enrichment, he developed a landmark aluminum barrier for enrichment by the gas-diffusion method. That success led to a late-night meeting with Kamel Hussein in 1987. Obeidi told Saddam Hussein's son-in-law that the diffusion breakthrough, though technically elegant, didn't fit Iraq's limited industrial capabilities and production of enriched uranium by diffusion would be difficult to conceal from international scrutiny.

Pressed for alternatives, Obeidi proposed a centrifuge strategy and left the meeting attached to the regime's Special Security Branch in command of 200 engineers and technicians on the secret crash program to pursue both enrichment methods. The unsuccessful test of a home-grown centrifuge, based on antiquated technology, and a warning that Kamel Hussein was "tired of failures", sent Obeidi and his team on their shopping spree in the international scientific community and the nuclear black market for a more modern solution. Obeidi's ingenuity in deception and engineering keyed the project's success.

Writing to alert the world to the relative ease of nuclear proliferation, Obeidi warns that the real secrets for weapons of mass destruction remain buried, not in gardens, but in the minds of thousands of scientists around the world. Their knowledge can still be exploited by autocrats through threats and coercion. It's a convincing argument, partially undermined by the extraordinary resourcefulness of Obeidi and his team, as well as improvements in the global non-proliferation regime. But Obeidi's alarm is important: the spread of nuclear weapons to India, Pakistan and, apparently, North Korea shows that the world still hasn't woken up.

The Bomb in My Garden: The Secrets of Saddam's Nuclear Mastermind, by Mahdi Obeidi and Kurt Pitzer, John Wiley & Sons, 2004, Hoboken, New Jersey. ISBN: 0-471-67965-8. Price: US$24.95, 242 pages.

Gary LaMoshi has worked as a broadcast producer and print writer and editor in the US and Asia. Longtime editor of investor rights advocate eRaider.com, he is also a contributor to Slate and Salon.com.

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