Sifting Saddam's nuclear sands
Geoff Metcalf interviews Daniel McGrory on Iraq's bomb quest

By Geoff Metcalf
Known for his coverage of the Middle East and the Balkans, awarding-winning journalist Daniel McGrory is the co-author of the recently published "Brighter Than The Baghdad Sun: Saddam Hussein's Nuclear Threat to the United States," a book that explores the bizarre and terrifying world of Saddam Hussein and his insatiable drive for nuclear weapons.

Formerly the chief foreign correspondent for London's Daily Express, McGrory currently writes for the Times of London.

In this in-depth interview with WorldNetDaily reporter Geoff Metcalf, McGrory describes Iraq's quest for nuclear arms, as well as the Clinton administration's policy toward Iraq, including the president's Dec. 15, 1998, bombing attack in an attempt to assassinate Saddam Hussein and divert attention from pressing domestic concerns.

By Geoff Metcalf

Question: I was fascinated by both the scope and depth of the information revealed in "Brighter Than The Baghdad Sun." How did you get access to all this first-hand information, especially coming inside this top-secret nuclear weapons organization Hussein maintained?

Answer: My colleague, Shyam Bhatia, and I were both in the Gulf during the war in 1991 and at the end of the war. A number of people fled the country and, amongst them, were some very key scientists. They were brave and courageous and took their lives in their hands -- not only in coming out with the refugees, but then sitting down and telling the story of what Hussein actually possessed. And the truth is, Geoff, we grossly underestimated the threat that man posed before the war began.

Q: We blew up the facility that was the heart and soul of the Iraqi nuclear program -- by accident?

A: Total fluke. Absolute fluke -- so terrifying. We came so close to seeing the doomsday bomb being created and that is what Saddam wanted. When Desert Shield began with Saddam already in Kuwait, we poured tens of thousand of troops and manpower into the Arabian desert, thinking, "Why is Saddam sitting there watching and waiting? Why doesn't he do something?" Our fear was that, the day before the U.N. deadline, Saddam would -- wily old fox that he is -- pull back, and the allies would go wobbly and say, well, we don't want to invade; there is no point now.

The truth is, what he had done was to gather his scientists and say, "You work day and night and you deliver me the doomsday bomb. I will detonate it before the ground war, and that will show them." He was betting that if he proved he had a nuclear device the allies would not have taken him on in war.

Ironically, the Pentagon played a war game before the invasion began and the one question fed into the computer was: "What would we do if Saddam possessed a nuclear weapon?" The computer chewed on it for a while and spit back, "Nothing!"

Q: This guy, Jaffar Dhia Jaffar -- tell us a little about him.

A: There were two men who were principal characters. Of the 20,000 scientists that Saddam employed in this $18-billion project, most of them were educated abroad in Europe in America and were allowed to see the secrets of the West. Jaffar and another man, Hussein Sharhistani, were great friends. They were educated in London; they spent time in the U.S.

Q: They also both spent time in Saddam's jails.

A: Absolutely. They were lured back to Iraq by lots of money, yes, but they were told Iraq was an emerging country and needed a nuclear program like everybody else -- for peaceful purposes, of course. The day is going to come when oil runs out, they were told, and Iraq needed to be on the forefront of technology. These were genuine scientists who went back to help their nation. Very quickly, they soon realized what this man was up to -- a weapons program.

Jaffar decided, because he was terrified and frightened into doing it, that he would carry on working for Hussein and he remains today the head of the Iraqi nuclear program. He was the man who led our weapons inspectors on a merry dance. Sharhistani, on the other hand, resisted Saddam. He went to prison; he was tortured; he was made to watch a 7-year-old boy hanged from his wrists and then executed for the sin of writing on the blackboard "Saddam is a buffalo."

Sharhistani still refused to break. He spent eight and a half years in solitary. He was allowed one visit with his wife in the very early days and their newborn child. And he watched a Republican Guard snatch the child from his wife's arms and hold a gun to the child's head while he had a five-minute meeting with his wife. His captors asked, "Do you wish to persist with your refusal?" Begging his wife for forgiveness, he said, "Look, I can't take part in this."

Q: Sharhistani wasn't the Lone Ranger was he?

A: No, Jaffar went through the same thing, but he folded. He had no moral background, no courage -- terrified into doing his master's whim.

Q: And, actually, the reason Jaffar went to prison was for trying to intercede in behalf of his friend?

A: That's right. He started out as a good guy. He was an honest scientist; there is no question he is a very gifted man. And, when he saw his friend imprisoned wrongly, he had the temerity to go to Saddam and say, "You can't do this. This man is not disloyal to you. He just has problems of conscience. I'm sure I can talk him into it."

Saddam, who does not allow anyone to criticize him or his regime or his plans, immediately dispatched Jaffar to the most notorious jail in Baghdad. It took only a matter of days for Jaffar to see the terrible things done around him. They brought another scientist in who Jaffar knew quite well. He was an elderly man, and they broke his back, leaving him in agony in Jaffar's cell.

Jaffar was a gibbering wreck within 36 hours, begging to get out and continue with his work. He was one of the key players in making sure the weapons inspectors did not know what was going on.

Q: If Sharhistani was so important to Hussein's nuclear program, didn't his loss hurt the Iraqi program?

A: It did. And the only reason he is still alive today is because every time Saddam was exasperated and said, "Take this man out and kill him -- do away with his family," saner voices inside the nuclear program answered, "Look, you want this thing done as quickly as possible. The way to unlock the secrets of this bomb is to get this man back inside, rehabilitate him." He was taken from prisons into villas. On one occasion, Saddam's brother-in-law came around and said, "We're very sorry about all this mistake. Saddam begs your forgiveness and wants you all to kiss and make up." The truth was that, by then, Sharhistani had been so badly tortured, the man had to crawl across the floor to eat his food like a dog. He could not use his arms or his legs.

Can you imagine this is an incredibly brilliant man who was left in total darkness in a cell for eight and a half years? Not one person talked to him -- not his jailers, not the man who came to clean the cell occasionally, not those who delivered his food. Saddam ordered that he live in a total world of silence. It must have driven him nearly mad. But, he retained his sanity, he retained his conscience and he retained his courage.

Fortuitously, in the bombing of the Gulf War, he was able to escape from this prison and was able to make it across the border.

Q: What is he doing now?

A: He is now working ceaselessly to try to bring down this regime. It is through his courage and his help that a lot of the information in "Brighter Than The Baghdad Sun" was gleaned.

Q: You say nobody would dare talk against Saddam but his son Uday pulled-off such a stunt that I was surprised he survived. I would have thought Saddam would have capped him on the spot.

A: Extraordinary. The extraordinary Uday -- who was originally being groomed for power. He is a chip off the old block all right. He is as violent as his father. A complete lunatic. Pathological. This is a man who, when he saw a woman on television that he took a fancy to, demanded she be brought to him and when she was brought to him and refused to submit to his bestial wishes, he just had her beaten to death.

The falling-out with his father happened when Saddam fell in love with the wife of the head of Iraqi Airways. Saddam called this fellow into his office one day, thinking he was going to be given a hard time over the airline's poor business performance. Not so. Saddam looked up from his desk and said, "You will divorce your wife within 48 hours." The man looked rather stunned. Saddam added, "You will divorce your wife or you will be made to understand the consequences."

The man already knew that Saddam was having an affair with his wife but was not going to complain; he said nothing. The wife was not particularly inclined to go along with it either -- but, nobody in their right mind said no if they wanted to carry on breathing.

Now, Saddam's secret trysts with this woman had been facilitated by his closest personal servant -- the man who used to taste his food -- taking her to any number of palaces to continue the affair for some weeks and months. One evening, Uday heard about this and was informed the former food taster was at a massive reception on the island in the river of Tikrit. Uday walked into the middle of a packed party -- surrounded by dignitaries and leaders of other countries, including the wife of Anwar Sadat -- carrying a baseball bat. He found the servant, who was quite an elderly man, and literally beat him to the ground, jumped up and down on his spine and crashed in his skull until he was dead. Nobody lifted a finger. Uday then brushed some blood off his clothes, walked out with his cronies and went back to a party.

Q: Dad was "annoyed" for a short time?

A: Dad went loopy when he found out. For the only time in his life, Saddam absolutely lost it with his son. He said, "That's it. I'm sending you to prison."

The governor of the prison was terrified to see Uday show up. He thought he was going to make an inspection of the prison. The guards and the secret police said, "No, no, he's going inside," but the governor thought, no, this is some kind of test. If I put this man behind bars, I'm going to end up in a noose. So the governor actually covered Uday for a few days. Meanwhile, Saddam was persuaded by all manner of people, including his first wife, Uday's mother, to relent -- not to execute her son, not to put him in prison for life. Instead, Uday was sent to Switzerland for punishment, where he was told to behave himself and learn the error of his ways.

He'd been there about 48 hours and had been able to fly in some of his friends at his own expense. So he had a little party going the first night his friends were with him and they shot off to a nightclub where Uday saw a lovely young girl in a short silver skirt. Behaving the way he did in Baghdad, Uday stormed across the dance floor and grabbed hold of this girl, trying to drag her off somewhere. Not unnaturally, her boyfriend gets upset and said, "Who are you? Get off!" Uday pulled out a pistol and fired it off over the boy's head. The police moved-in and Uday is arrested again.

Uday's uncle got hold of the Swiss government that same night and said, "I'm claiming diplomatic immunity for this boy." Grabbing him back to the embassy, Uday was flown back to Baghdad.

Now, you would think his father would be incandescent with rage but, such is the psychotic nature of this man, that he welcomed his son back with open arms and said, "That's my boy!"

Q: In your book, you also allude to an incident that I was not aware of at all. I did not know that Saddam Hussein had been raped himself when he was a child.

A: The truth is he had an appalling childhood. He was born out of wedlock. His father left his mother before Saddam was born. He was humiliated by that. He was mocked as a kid in his hometown of Tikrit for that. His mother moved to Baghdad partly out of shame because she was a single woman and she had to find money. She worked as a chambermaid -- a really humiliating job -- but to add to the family income she also worked as a prostitute. It was a hotel where truck drivers used to stop.

There is evidence -- and we spoke with one man who knew the hotel owner and told us this story at some peril to himself -- that when Saddam was nine, he was cowering in a room one night when in came three drunken men with whom his mother had had relations. They demanded sex. She refused and said, "No, no not tonight; my son is here. Go away, go away." The three of them took her and one of them spotted Saddam in the corner of the room -- he was raped along with his mother. Since then, his hatred of society, women in particular, has grown and the way he has treated women ever since is indicative of that.

Q: You recount several incidents in the book in which he calls in some big shot's wife and just rapes her.

A: The man would arrest senior figures in the administration for no reason other than to get to their wives. In one case, a woman (she told us herself -- she is now living in Scotland in absolute peril) was forced into a room where Saddam was staring at a file on his knee. He didn't look up, just beckoned her over and she had to sit on his knee like some kind of recalcitrant child; she reports Saddam said, "Your husband has been a very naughty boy." And, with that, he raped her in the room, watched over by several guards.

When another woman came in, she was so appalled with what he was about to do to her that she scratched her own face with her fingernails and blood began to pour down her face. Saddam is a fanatically fastidious man who hates any kind of dirt and when the blood dripped onto his suit, he pushed her away. Disgusted with what she had done, he said to the guards, "Take her outside and you deal with her." And four or five Republican Guards took her outside and raped her.

Q: Shifting gears, even a scientific idiot like me knows you can't make a nuclear bomb without certain necessary ingredients. Iraq faced that problem; how did it deal with it and how successful was it?

A: For starters, before the world even recognized his name, Saddam recognized that to possess the nuclear bomb would make him the most powerful Arab leader of all time. That still remains his ambition. He would be the new Saladin. And, he's right; his neighbors would be so terrified they would have to side with him.

Q: He has already demonstrated his willingness to use biological and chemical weapons.

A: Absolutely! We visited the town of Halabjar, which he sprayed with poison gases. Six thousand people died; it was a terrible sight what we saw. This is a man who is capable of the most appalling atrocities. He thought the greatest prize of all was the weapon of ultimate destruction -- "The Bomb." And, to that end, he gathered together some great scientists; 20,000 people he has employed in this program. He sent a lot of them over to the United States and Europe so they could get what information they could.

Q: One of the awkward reality checks was the realization that the Iraqis could not home-grow all the necessary expertise and they had to reach out and actually take in some foreigners.

A: They did, and they have some appalling people. There are a couple of German scientists who were taken over to Iraq who actually worked for Hitler. They were still alive, these old boys, and they felt their worth was not really recognized in Germany. They were tempted by the fast buck and went over to Iraq. One man used to play Hitler's speeches in his room and said quite openly, "The only other leader I would work for other than Adolf is Saddam Hussein; they are two of a kind." Well, they are.

Q: In fact, early on, Saddam used to carry around a copy of "Mein Kampf" like it was a Bible.

A: Absolutely. His father had run off and left him, before he was born, and he was brought up by an uncle -- a dreadful man -- and this man taught Saddam from the time he could walk and talk that the Nazis were a great power. His uncle's philosophy was that the Jews are lower than flies. And, when Saddam came to power, he allowed his uncle to publish his appalling rantings and insisted that everyone in Iraq should receive a copy of his thoughts.

Q: Has anybody been able to estimate how much money this guy has squandered on excesses and hubris, specifically the money that he, his relatives and cronies have stolen?

A: It is thought to be in the region of $100 billion. This could be one of the richest countries in the world. It oozes oil; it has fantastic agriculture; it has everything going for it and he has just wastefully, wastefully frittered it away along with his sons and relatives. The indulgences are shocking. The truth is, they whine about sanctions, saying they are hurting people, but you go to Baghdad and you see the fastest and finest cars. Uday at one stage had 34 cars.

Q: And, Saddam got angry with him and burned all of them.

A: Yeah, even though Uday had 34 cars, he took a fancy to a car a little cousin had and he said, "I want it." The young boy said, "No, no, you have 34 cars." So Uday shot him and drove-off in the Ferrari. One day, he offended his father and Saddam figured he knew how to get to him. He went to the garage and set fire to all his son's cars, saying, "That will teach you." But it didn't.

Saddam just wastefully spends money. At the moment, he is in the process of building three new palaces -- he already has 26. And Saddam is also building what will be the world's largest mosque, figuring that since this will be the biggest mosque in the world, he'll therefore be a great hero to the Muslims. Further, he has just opened the equivalent to a Florida Seaworld, a water aquatic theme park on the banks of the Tigris, which, of course, is for the exclusive use of his family, friends, party cronies and the military.

Q: Getting back to Saddam's nuclear aspirations, we need to touch on the pursuit of nuclear fuel. They had two different groups working on separate projects. Jaffar had one way and a competitor of his was attempting the centrifuge option.

A: One of the defectors that came out told the Americans, "Listen, I'm a scientist and I have information you need to hear." A soldier took him to a CIA type and the fellow said, "Have you ever heard of Oakridge?" The CIA officer looked at him with curiosity because that was the place where the Americans built the bomb for the Los Alamos project. Well, the scientist said, "We've got one. We've built an absolutely identical thing to you at Oakridge." The CIA officer flew him back to America to talk to weapons inspectors. What happened was, when the Iraqis sent all these scientists back to America to study all of the information about Oppenheimer's bomb, the first bomb, [it] was on university library shelves. They didn't have to do any secret spying; it was all there. When they went back to Iraq, they rebuilt this brick by brick.

Q: It sounds too simple.

A: To give you an idea, if you have a bicycle and a top-of-the-line Cadillac, they will both get you from point A to B. One is going to get you there much much slower and much more uncomfortably, but they both get you where you need to go. Saddam thought as Jaffar did -- that if Iraq used really old-fashion technology, the Americans and the rest of its enemies would never think to look down that road.

The trouble was that Saddam is a very impatient man. The idea was to get this enriched uranium. If you have one ton of impure uranium, by the time you purify it to weapons grade you might have enough to put under one fingernail. So it is a really laborious process to go the old-fashioned way. It took about the same amount of power required to light up Chicago for one year. It is expensive; it is cumbersome. Saddam wanted something faster and slicker.

Opponents of Jaffar said, "Let's go the more modern route." But that would involve buying modern technology and that was where they started to be found-out. To avoid attention, he went on the open market to places like Brazil, Italy, Pakistan -- places you wouldn't think of as first-line nuclear states -- and said, "Money is no object." He was able to put together the nuclear jigsaw very, very carefully.

Q: Jaffar's technology was pretty brilliant. It was old technology, but the way he camouflaged it was truly brilliant.

A: He is an extraordinary and gifted man.

Q: You mention in the book the Clinton-Gore policy -- or lack of policy -- toward Iraq and you mention that Clinton was obsessed with assassinating Saddam.

A: It is a cheap and easy option.

Q: It's illegal, too.

A: I know presidents are bound by the executive order; you are not allowed to do it. But I think Clinton's view was, I wouldn't be doing it personally; it would be done by an Iraqi hand. I'm paying millions of dollars. I've got spies inside Iraq; I want one of them to be the Lone Ranger and deliver the silver bullet, deliver the world from this man. And nobody would look too hard at who was behind the plot. He thought he would simply get away with it.

He tried and tried again; there had been several assassination attempts -- some of them interestingly foiled by Saddam Hussein. On one occasion, deliciously, he infiltrated this movement that the CIA was funding with millions of dollars and, on the eve of the assassination attempt -- which was meant to be outside the home of one of Saddam's many mistresses, a member of Saddam's secret police contacted the CIA to say, "Thanks for the money; we're sending your boys back in a box."

Several assassination attempts were tried both by the Americans and by the Israelis. They failed. Indeed, if you remember Operation Desert Fox, the last time the bombers were unleashed on Baghdad was during Christmas of '98.

Q: The whole purpose of that didn't have anything to do with anything strategic; they just wanted to try to get lucky and nail Saddam?

A: Absolutely right. All the intelligence they gleaned about the Republican Guard and weapons and so forth -- the truth is they were trying to find-out where Saddam was hiding. Which three or four palaces and these secret installations was he likely to be in when they launched the raid? And that was what the first targets were.

The truth was, the intention was to try to take out Saddam.