Does Saddam have nukes?
Iraq's former nuclear program director tells Metcalf 'yes'

Editor's Note: In addition to being an MIT-educated nuclear physicist, Dr. Khidhir Hamza was the director of the Iraqi Nuclear Program until 1994, when he defected from Iraq to the United States. Now the president of the Council on Middle Eastern Affairs in New York City, Hamza sat down with Geoff Metcalf to discuss his first-hand knowledge of Iraq's nuclear capabilities. Having been in personal contact with Saddam Hussein during his time in Iraq, Hamza also makes disturbing projections about Hussein's future and propensity to use weapons of mass destruction.

By Geoff Metcalf
Q: I recently saw a story about Iraq deploying those "super-cannons" we didn't think they had. U.S. troop buildups are mounting in apparent anticipation of some kind of new U.S. offensive against Saddam Hussein. How much time do we have before we are compelled to do something to get rid of Hussein?

A: Actually, until he gets his bomb. And that is projected by German intelligence to be by 2005. That gives us a window of about three years.

Q: I remember back in '91 during the Gulf War. I had been told by some people that we blew up some key nuclear facility of your old boss, and allegedly it happened by accident.

A: I don't believe it was by accident. What happened was, if you mean the nuclear weapons site, the bunker for explosives was sighted by a U.S. pilot who suspected that it looked like the bunkers used in the U.S. for testing bombs -- explosives, regular explosives. So he dropped some load. He had some extra bombs, and he dropped them on the site. And that was the only part that was really accidental. Many of the sites were not known to the U.S. Those that were known were bombed thoroughly.

Q: I've been saying this for years, and I want to ask you since you were there and you worked for this madman. If or when Hussein has the capacity to deploy any weapon of mass destruction, how long will it take him before he pulls the trigger?

A: It depends. First, what weapons systems he has complement each other. Chemical, you can use them in the field battles. Biological, he can use in terrorist acts, using them against his enemies, like he did with the Kurds. He experimented on them with biological weapons. The anthrax scare in the U.S. -- he's possibly the source of it. The nuclear [capability] he will use to keep his regime in power if you attack him and there is imminent danger of his removal from power. That is his death, for him and his family. Then he would probably use the nuclear. Also, he would use it to entrench himself and threaten his neighbors and have a safe base of operation for terrorism for threatening the region, for imposing his will on his neighbors. So there is a whole range of options in front of Saddam, since he is going for all these weapons.

Q: The Pentagon actually played a computerized war game before the last invasion 10 years ago. One of the questions fed to the computer was: "What would we do if Saddam possessed a nuclear weapon?" And the computer, after chewing on it for a while, came back and responded, "Nothing."

A: What can you do with a man with nuclear weapons? The only thing you can do is threaten him with removal or devastation, an attack, a counterattack. A very realistic threat of a counterattack would probably stop him from using it. But, if he used it, the damage is done. The only option that would remain is vengeance. But the damage would have been done. That's what he asked us to do at the time: Make him one nuclear weapon. We dragged our feet, and we didn't do it. And now he admits to that program, called "The Crash Program."

Q: There were two guys, and you may have worked with them -- Jaffar Dhia Jaffar and Hussein Sharhistani.

A: Yes.

Q: Jaffar is still there in Iraq, isn't he?

A: Yes.

Q: Is he heading up the nuclear weapons program now?

A: No, he is not. He has been more or less sidelined since the Gulf War. Actually, what happened was the U.S. inspectors showed that he was running more or less a bogus operation. He was promising Saddam enriched bomb-grade uranium for 10 years, and he didn't deliver a single gram of that. When the inspectors looked at his operation, they found it not to be up to standard, and there are several missing links that he did not even develop. So Saddam got angry and put him aside.

Q: It is amazing he is still alive ...

A: Yes.

Q: ... because he was in trouble before, and Saddam threw him in the slammer, right?

A: Yes. Actually, we believe he did this deliberately. He was in 20 months, tortured for a couple of months, then "rehabilitated" in the other 18 months and then released. When he came out, we believe, he developed a plan to make it look as if he was doing enrichment of uranium. He was assigned the job of enriching uranium. I was assigned the job of making the bomb. He never delivered. We think he played a very sly game with Saddam, and Saddam can do nothing about it because a lot of Saddam's money was transferred through Jaffar's program to foreign accounts. And Jaffar probably knows about it.

Q: What happened to the other guy, Hussein Sharhistani? Because he dug in his heels and sat in jail.

A: He sat in jail and refused to come out. So he suffered 11 years of jail, and the Gulf War saved him.

Q: How?

A: It provided the cover for him to escape prison. He managed to escape in 1991, and he is now in England.

Q: I know you don't accept everything in the Daniel McGrory book, "Brighter than the Baghdad Sun" (read previous Q&A with Daniel McGrory), but what about the claim that Iraq had duplicated the Oak Ridge project?

A: That is true. Jaffar actually improved on the Oak Ridge magnet through CENR, the Center for European Nuclear Research in Geneva. Jaffar was working in CENR four years before he returned to Iraq in 1974, so there were some developments in magnet technology that allow enrichment of uranium on a larger scale. Jaffar wasn't going back to older technologies; he has a better mind than that. He thought that the thing advanced enough to put it back in action, and he tried to develop a program -- an upgraded Oak Ridge facility in Iraq. Of course, he couldn't. It is too complex for Iraqi science or technology.

Q: We know that Saddam is working on developing bad stuff (nuclear, biological and chemical) and that if or when he gets it, he will probably use it. Where is the stuff he has buried? Is it deep underground?

A: Actually, Iraq doesn't bury a lot. It buries some, which was later found out by inspectors, but mostly it leaves things in houses, hospitals; there are some depots used. But Saddam found out after the war, and actually from some information he had before the war, that digging usually alerts satellites and airplane surveillance. So, usually, Saddam avoided digging. For example, the missiles -- very few of them were found during the search of the U.S. Air Force -- were hidden among trees and in schools. So you have a system where, actually, it is not buried but is among us; it is everywhere. They say one of his mistresses died from radiation sickness because he hid some radioactive material in her house.

Q: The search for enriched uranium, I recall that -- and believe me, I am not a scientist; I don't know jack about this technical stuff -- there were or are apparently two methods of trying to come up with enriched uranium. Jaffar was supposed to be working on something not typical. What are they doing now, because that is the one thing Iraq is still missing, right?

A: Oh, yes. Iraq has the whole missile design done. It is complete. Low-powered weapons of probably two to four or five kilotons, but there is a workable weapon design in Iraq right now. So what Iraq needs is the nuclear fuel inside, the nuclear core. That has to be enriched uranium to weapons grade, which is 90 percent, and Iraq does not have the technology so far. It has the elements of the technology but has to put it together -- build the installations and start the production. Germans estimate that by last December, Iraq had 25 percent of the program together for enrichment. It will have it fully operational this year, and probably productive in the next, and should have enough for three bombs in 2005.

Q: Iraq has more oil than good sense, so why in the world don't they just buy the enriched uranium from anywhere else?

A: Oh, we tried! Don't you think we didn't. Actually, we used to get offers. I was an adviser to atomic energy from 1985-1987, and I would sit down in my room next to the chairman, and we would get this mail continuously of offers to sell uranium and plutonium. You don't know what is bogus and what is not. In many cases, we would get black marketers to come to Baghdad, and they'd have some sample in their bags, and they'd say, "This is enriched uranium. I can get you as much as you want. Give me some deposits so I can go ahead and make a deal and bring you some more." So we'd take it and analyze it, and it turned out to be low enriched uranium. In one of the cases, depleted uranium, and there was no fuel in it at all.

Q: A big concern was and has been that in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, with the Russian Mafia running things, that some bad guys might be selling stuff to Iraq.

A: Yes, there are something like 180 cases documented of smuggled material or attempted smuggled nuclear material. Iraq has actually played a part in this. They have formed hundreds and hundreds of front corporations set up inside the ex-Soviet Union -- that is Russia now -- that do import/export stuff like that which are run by Iraqi Intelligence. They have this contact and they have the old weapon technocrats who are still there and still powerful inside Russia. So they have the contacts, they have the organization. The only problem is they cannot get it in large enough quantity. And once the Russians find out, Iraq loses a very powerful ally in Russia, who is trying to get Iraq off the hook in regard to sanctions. So Iraq is playing it very low now. But once sanctions are lifted, then Iraq is no longer afraid. I think it will go much more aggressively after that. Right now, I don't believe Iraq is in the Russian market for uranium or plutonium.

Q: Iraq came close on their own under the guise of a nuclear power plant they finessed out of the French. It was in the '80s. In fact, you were still there working for Saddam.

A: Yes.

Q: You got close, but before you could fire up the plant, the Israelis had other thoughts -- fortunate, preemptive thoughts.

A: Yes. Actually, I was the one who went to France and signed for that reactor in 1974. We started the negotiations in 1974. In 1975, we clinched the deal for that reactor. So it was a personal blow when the Israelis hit it. But this is not hitting the head of the snake; this is hitting at the periphery of the program. The reactor is removed. But Iraq trained, because of that reactor, some 400 technologists. By removing the reactor, you are releasing 400 technologists into Saddam's hands to divert them into another program, which is secret and underground. So the 400, Saddam managed to turn in six years to 7,000.

Q: 7,000!

A: By 1987 we had 7,000, instead of the 400 nuclear technologists, working in this huge program -- the U.S. found out later how big it is -- to make enriched uranium and to make nuclear weapons on a much larger scale now.

Q: Didn't you have two huge buildings at opposite ends of the country that were mirror images of each other?

A: Oh yes. According to another recent defector, in recent years Iraq is increasing this duplicate program. Every building has a backup to it. The backup becomes operational as soon as the first building is compromised. So Iraq has a backup for everything right now. Even if inspectors go back in and find one or two buildings, others become operational immediately.

Q: If or when someone is successful in killing that demonic, demented s.o.b. -- and he is dead, taking the long dirt nap -- then what? What fills the vacuum of Saddam Hussein?

A: It depends how you take him out. If you take him out in an assassination or an air strike, one of his family will take over.

Q: Hey, his son Uday is even crazier than Saddam is.

A: True, but it is now Kursay, the younger one. Uday is crazy, so he is put aside, and Kursay is now prime to be the successor to the throne. But Kursay is just as bad as his father, if that is possible.

Q: What percentage of Saddam's efforts is directed to the nuclear program? I got the impression it is the nexus of his weapons-of-mass-destruction effort.

A: It is the largest program. I'll give you some sizes. For example, at the onset of the Gulf War, we had about 7,000 workers in the nuclear, 400 in the biological and another 400-500 in the chemical. That should tell you where the emphasis is. The difference is that the nuclear program is a complete pyramid. You can design and build there. The biological is more or less a contracting entity. If they need a building, they bring in a contractor. If they want equipment, they'll buy it or contract to atomic energy or someone to make it for them. Atomic energy is a complete entity. You can start from thinking of what you want to do -- to having an establishment that produces what you want it to do. It is the only one of its kind in the Middle East outside of Israel.

Q: Have they abandoned the red herring of nuclear power plants?

A: They never went into it seriously. It was a cover, like I said.

Q: Thinly veiled.

A: Yes. I mean, we talked to international atomic energy about getting us reactors to build power plants. But they don't make sense. Iraq is awash in oil and gas, and why would it need to generate electricity by burning uranium instead of oil? It doesn't make sense. It is the same senseless claim made by the Iranians now. They want to convince the U.S. that their negotiations with the Russians to buy power plants is OK, because it is the fuel of the future. It doesn't make sense. Iran has enough oil for the next century or two. Why should they start right now to use nuclear fuel?

Q: What was the reaction, because you were there when the Israelis turned your would-be nuclear power plant into a smoking hole in the desert.

A: We were sickened, because we knew what comes next. We were sickened, because actually, the reactor was under international control. We had inspectors every six months coming in to see how we were using it. We had a fixed camera at the core of the reactor. Anything that went in or went out was actually photographed. And we had the French sitting there all the time around the reactor for at least the first two years for maintenance and getting things going. So with the reactor gone, we had to go and build our own, without international supervision. So Saddam would be breathing down our necks, which he did, with, "Where is it now? There is nothing to hinder you now, nothing to hold you back now." There were no longer inspectors and all that.

Q: On the other side of the coin, you did score a coup when you were putting in that French nuclear power plant. At least you had access to all those nuclear technicians.

A: Oh, yes. Initially, it was needed. Initially, it produced for us the cadre we needed to go to the next stage. The French and Italians also trained for us people in the complete nuclear fuel cycle -- from making fuel, processing it into nuclear material, to extracting uranium and all kinds of processes that you need in nuclear technology. We had acquired knowledge of the full fuel cycle because of the reactor, and that is what we got out of it, really -- not the building.

Q: What if the Germans are wrong and we don't really have three years? What if that one to two kiloton puppy you say he "might" have now is bigger, and there are more of them? What if Saddam Hussein becomes a for-real imminent threat? Then what?

A: The Germans also say that is a possibility. The Germans say without outside assistance, without getting uranium from the Russians or anywhere else, with only solely Iraqi capability, local indigenous program, Iraq could make it in three years. But, if it gets assistance -- say a Russian scientist comes in and helps us build the plans better and faster or get some fuel from the Russians, nuclear fuel -- then yes, he could have had it by now. It's been three years without an inspection!

Q: If you were talking to Condoleezza Rice or George Bush right now, what are you going to tell them?

A: Take him out now. There's no other solution, no fix for this problem. Take Saddam out now, and replace him with a democratic regime, a pro-U.S. regime.

Q: How big a mistake was it to let him hang around this long? At the time, after the Gulf War, the rationale was, "Well, the evil we have and know is better than the evil we don't know. We would create a vacuum with the removal of Saddam, and we don't know what would fill that vacuum." Those arguments -- I thought they were hollow at the time -- but those same arguments are the ones that exist today.

A: Yes, but by not taking him out, you allowed Saddam to remain in power, so he remained a threat to his neighbor. That incited Iran to go after nuclear weapons also, and biological weapons. So it created, by leaving him there, an arms race. And it created a more dangerous situation in the region and less prospect for peace, also, in the region. So leaving him there is really leaving a headache, a problem. Look how much money you spend on airplanes and air strikes and surveillance for 10 years -- 11 years by now.

Q: If Hussein has the capability to deploy -- and everyone is concerned he might hit Israel -- but what if he went after Iran? I mean, this guy perceives of himself as some kind of 21st Century Nebuchadnezzar anyway. I mean, you guys fought an eight-year war with Iran.

A: That is why Iran is hopeful right now in terms of allowing the U.S. back. The Iraqi opposition -- an American plan to invade Iraq and remove Saddam -- is in place. Iranians are agreeing right now.

Q: Hey, that was the talk last week. More recently, their former President Rafsanjani is saying Iran ought to nuke Israel.

A: Well, that is just talk. But Iran is actually -- because I know the head of the Iraqi opposition was there a couple of times -- the present government is allowing the U.S.-backed Iraqi opposition to operate from inside Iran, and if a strike happens to enter Iraq through the Iranian border. That is because they are wary of what happens next with Saddam.

Q: Saddam is between the rock and the hard place. Iran doesn't like him, obviously we want him sucking dirt soon, so is it better from a strategic position for him to go after Iran rather than posture. I mean, if he hits Israel, he has to know what is going to happen.

A: That's what he keeps telling the U.S. -- that "I am your only hope at blocking Iranian expansion and creating an Islamic state that would take over the gulf." And the expansion of the Islamic state -- Iraq is the only shield against it. That's why he keeps the Iranian opposition inside Iraq operating from inside Iraq doing hits inside Iran. He wants to create the aura of being the protector of the region against Iranian encroachment. You have this game he is playing -- he's trying to convince the U.S., and that's probably what has kept him in power so far. The U.S. has not gone seriously after him in the last 10 or 11 years.

Q: You have had personal contact with Saddam, which is why I have to ask you this: I am under the impression -- and I feel this is a huge mistake our state departments have made for decades -- that we are trying to view an adversary, in this case Hussein, like he is some competitive CEO in a board meeting, and we can sit down and either negotiate or appease him. In my estimation Saddam Hussein is evil incarnate. We cannot negotiate, appease or mitigate with evil like this. You've got to kill it.

A: Yes. You're finding that out the hard way. Everything they agreed with him on -- including Kofi Annan, who said, "I can do business with Saddam. Saddam is a man I can do business with." Remember that?

Q: Kofi Annan is worse than an empty suit.

A: I'm including a figure like Kofi Annan finding the hard way that Saddam doesn't keep his word. He is tricky, he's treacherous and he is very dangerous.

Q: But isn't there a huge cultural disconnect? I mean, he really hasn't been out of Iran all that much throughout his life.

A: No, he has not. He spent a couple of years during Nasser's era out of Iraq and stayed in Egypt. That's about the only trip outside of Iraq he took.

Q: What would be the impact on the geopolitical balance in the region if Saddam were no more? One of the concerns in attempting to keep together that fragile coalition in '91 was "balance." Apparently, we're not even going to try to do that again. How destabilizing would it be to Iran, Jordan, Syria, all those countries in and around the neighborhood, if Hussein goes away?

A: If Hussein goes away, it depends how he goes away. If he is replaced by a democratic system, like you are trying to do now in Afghanistan, and nurtured that system to take hold -- and not just be a weak government that could be toppled easily by a military coup -- if you have a real democratic system there, then you have a transformation in the region that has to happen. It will influence Iran and what's going on inside Iran to get out from the really oppressive religious clergy government.

Q: Yes, but Dr. Hamza, in Afghanistan, for good or ill, there was an opposition force in place. Saddam has killed most of his opposition, hasn't he?

A: Oh, no. You still have the Kurdish region, which is one-fourth of Iraq, the Kurdish opposition in the north. And you still have a large expatriate group living outside Iraq, which is ready to go back and work its way into power.

Q: So what happens next? Recently, we have seen stories about the U.S. moving all kinds of troops into the region all around Iraq. And what about these "super cannons"? I remember seeing a movie about that Canadian guy Bull who supposedly got whacked by the Mossad for playing with Saddam.

A: Yes, Gerald Bull. Actually, what happened was small and large cannons he developed. The small one was already deployed and tested.

Q: How big are these "small" cannons?

A: One is about 150 feet long and something like 3.5 feet wide. It is supposed to take a missile, or the warhead of a missile, and with some kind of controlled system to maneuver it, and with the large one, send it to Israel, or to Tehran for example. It is meant to replace the arduous process of making missiles, or the engines of missiles with their fuel and all that. But it is a fixed target.

Q: It can't be easy to hide one of these beasts, let alone try to move one.

A: Exactly. But one of the reasons Gerald Bull was brought in to make this was how little money he asked.

Q: How much is "how little money"?

A: The whole thing was less than $20 million. The technology he provided Iraq on guided artillery shells -- how to guide them and make them more precise to hit a target -- was that he modified Iraqi artillery in such a way to make it much more effective.

Q: These are not laser-designated type munitions, are they?

A: No, they are not. He just improved the trajectory and aerodynamics of the munitions.

Q: It always fascinated me about artillery. I was an Army officer for a long time, and we'd call in 105 mm howitzers, and we had to adjust fire to a target. Eight-inch guns from the Navy were much bigger but were a lot more accurate.

A: Exactly, and Bull was an aerodynamic engineer, so he was talking about shaping things, putting fins on them, putting small jets on the side to control the direction, stuff like that.

Q: According to a recent report I read, when the attack comes -- the inevitable attack on Iraq -- one of the first things targeted will be these new super cannons, so they're not going to last real long. He only has three or four of them.

A: Yes. Iraq kept some units and probably put them back together. Also, they could manufacture some, a little bit, but they wouldn't be as good as the imported units from England and Germany.

Q: I have been both annoyed and frustrated in reading stories about where we are moving troops, when we expect to strike and so forth. I hope this is at least partly misinformation and deception, because it is galling to think Saddam is getting good intel from CNN again.

A: It would be impossible not to tell him, because with the troop deployment, with the gathering of the winds of war, it is impossible for him not to know. This is not a small-scale operation.

Q: Given the fact that we're moving, we're getting ready -- and we will come knocking on his door pretty soon and real loud -- is it even physically possible for him to accelerate his nuclear program? I know you and Jaffar were getting heat from him before, "Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up."

A: Yes.

Q: So he has someone else to whip now, but I'm sure he's bugging these guys.

A: That's what worries me: the possibility that the Russians might look the other way when Saddam tries to purchase nuclear material from there, and they can claim he smuggled it or bought it in the black market and they don't know. They might give him underhanded help in developing his nuclear weapon.

Q: But what is the strategic advantage to Russia to do that? I can't see any.

A: He is their ally. If Saddam is in power in spite of U.S.-backed opposition ...

Q: They want and need oil. He has oil.

A: Yes, but then the resources of Iraq will be at Russia's disposal instead of the U.S. If the U.S. succeeds in removing Saddam, then the U.S.-backed opposition will replace him, and it will be at the disposal of the U.S. instead of the Russians. That's the difference for the Russians.

Q: Then Russia could get in bed with the Iranians.

A: Oh, yes. They are a little bit with the Iranians. Don't forget they are building their nuclear reactor. They are giving them enrichment technology despite the U.S. objection. They are sending their scientists to work there. So the Russians are hand-in-glove with the Iranians now to a degree.

Q: You indicated there is opposition: the Kurds in the north, the expatriates in Europe or wherever. Are these guys coordinated? If or when the vacuum is created and Saddam is taking the big dirt nap, is there any mechanism whereby something can replace him even as a transitional entity?

A: Yes, I think the same thing that you did with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. It was also factioned and squabbling groups with no hope of putting them together, if you remember the talk before the war. Now somehow they managed to get together. The U.S. is the glue here. The U.S. can put the alliance together and make it hold with U.S. pressure and U.S. presence. It has proven to work in Afghanistan; it should work in Iraq also.