A new book shows that Saddam didn't have nuclear weapons—yet.

A wartime lexicon.
Oct. 8 2004 4:04 PM

The Buried Truth

A new book shows that Saddam didn't have nuclear weapons—yet.

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It's a good coincidence that the Duelfer report appears in the same week as The Bomb In My Garden, a memoir by Saddam Hussein's chief nuclear physicist. Between them, or taken together, the two bodies of evidence enable two quite different yet quite compatible conclusions. The first is that the Saddam regime was more disarmed than perhaps even its leadership knew. The second is that it would have been very unwise to proceed on any assumption except that of its latent danger.

Christopher Hitchens Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair. His latest collection of essays, Love, Poverty and War, is forthcoming.

This may seem like an attempt to have it both ways, but consider: We only know all of this, about the Baathist weapons programs and their erosion and collapse, because of regime change. Up until then, any assumption that all the fangs had been removed would have been a highly irresponsible one. It would have involved, quite simply, taking Saddam Hussein's word for it. His prior record of deception, double-dealing, and concealment makes that quite impossible. The long-felt need was for an administration that did not give him the benefit of any doubt, that had a nasty and suspicious mind, and that would resolve any ambiguity on the presumption of guilt.

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Few felt this need more strongly than Dr. Mahdi Obeidi, whose crucial evidence we would never have acquired without the invasion. His book is one of the three or four accounts that anyone remotely interested in the Iraq debate will simply have to read. Apart from its insight into the workings of the Saddam nuclear project, it provides a haunting account of the atmosphere of sheer evil that permeated every crevice of Iraqi life under the old regime. It is morally impossible to read it and not rejoice at that system's ignominious and long-overdue removal.

Having been forcibly recruited, with his family as hostage, into the Saddam nuclear program, Obeidi describes the hysterical pressure exerted by the crime family that ran Iraq. Almost weeping with fear, scientists were lashed into prostituting their skills in the rush for a usable nuke. In the meantime, their country's deepest veins were being drained to finance the enterprise. It's alarming to read how easy it was for Obeidi, backed by an open checkbook, to acquire blueprints and components on the open market: Saddam was in this business in much the same way as A.Q. Khan, the former sales director of  Pakistan's nuclear bazaar. Only now can we know how close he came, and we came. Having starved and bled his people, Saddam sought to revive them by invading Kuwait: a mistake we must all be very glad he made. He might have got the nuclear capacity before he invaded, in which case we would be living in a rather different world. As it was, his insane bluff was called—and as the coalition struck back, Iraqi scientists were taken to offices run by illiterate brutes who screamed at them to produce just one "dirty" bomb on short notice. Providentially, this was not quite possible.

The subsequent arrival of the inspectors meant that Saddam, despite elaborate deceptions and dummyings (very well-described by Obeidi) was never able to get back up to speed again. His regime also began to suffer from interclan warfare with the defection of the Kamel brothers to Jordan and the further exposure of the Baathist arms racket. However, there was a secret that the Kamel brothers were not able to betray. Under the orders of Qusai Hussein, Dr. Obeidi had buried a huge barrel in his back garden. The barrel contained Iraq's crowning achievement in perverted physics: the components of an actual centrifuge for the enrichment of uranium. It also contained all the hard-won printed instructions and expertise on the subject. Dr. Obeidi was "interviewed" by many inspectors in the run-up to last year's war under the same conditions of open blackmail that Saddam had imposed on all his other scientists, and they got no nearer finding out the truth than one would have expected.

His conclusion is that, given an improvement in the economic and political climate, Saddam could and would have done one of two things: reconstitute the program or share it with others. Had it not been for 9/11, it is sobering to reflect, there would have been senior members of even this administration arguing that sanctions on Iraq should be eased. And, through the open scandal of the oil-for-food program, there were many states or clienteles within states who were happy to help Saddam enrich himself. Moreover, within the "box" that supposedly "contained" him were also living Kim Jong-il, A.Q. Khan, and Col. Qaddafi. We know from the Kay report that, as late as March of last year, Saddam's envoys were meeting North Korea's team in Damascus and trying to buy missiles off the shelf. It would never have stopped: this ceaseless ambition to acquire the means of genocide. If anything, we underestimated that aspect of it.

The supposed overestimate was, in reality, part of a wider underestimate. Libya and Iran turned out to be even more dangerous than we had thought, and the A.Q. Khan network of "Nukes 'R' Us" even more widespread. But now Iraq can be certified as disarmed, instead of wishfully assumed to be so, Libya's fissile materials are all under lock and key in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and the traces "walked back" from Qaddafi's capitulation helped expose A.Q. Khan. Of course, we could always have left Iraq alone, and brought nearer the day when the charming Qusai could have called for Dr. Obeidi and said: "That barrel of yours. It's time to dig it up."

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