Dr. Strangelove of Iraq                                                                                                   

A Review of Shyam Bhatia & Daniel McGrory’s Brighter than the Baghdad Sun: Saddam’s Race to Build the Bomb (Litle, Brown and Company, London, 1999, ISBN 0 316 85265 1, 289 pages, Price £ 12.99)


Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had long been under scrutiny for a ‘suspected secret bomb programme’ in the dossier of potential nuclear weapon holders maintained by non-proliferation analysts. Western experts believed that Iraq was two or three years away from producing a thermonuclear device when Operation Desert Storm intervened in 1991 and that the project was dismantled after its defeat in the Gulf War. Subsequent United Nations weapons inspection teams (UNSCOM) with mandates of dismantling Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) facilities have in the nature of their scope and constitution corroborated this belief that nuclear weapons of mass destruction of Iraq were less important than Chemical and Biological Weapons (CBW) in the post-1991 scenario (hence the former’s responsibility conferred to time-worn IAEA supervision with UNSCOM assistance). Now, enterprising journalists, Shyam Bhatia and Daniel McGrory, have delivered a lively and contentious account of Iraq’s relentless clandestine pursual of the atomic bomb, bringing back some of the lost sheen on Saddam’s lifelong quest for a “mechanism that will burn brighter than the Baghdad sun” (p.12) and positing new nightmares for the besieged nuclear disarmament regime in the 21st Century.         


A Despot’s Dream

As Vice-President to Ba’ath supremo Hassan Al Bakr between 1968 and 1979, Saddam engineered Iraqi nuclear research’s redirection from the old ‘cheap energy and medical advances’ tune to the objective of building the first nuclear bomb in the Arab world. The psychoanalytical impetus, according to the authors, came from his personal beliefs in the rule of force (originating from an exploited and deprived childhood) and the efficacy of brute power that he learnt from Stalin and Hitler (p.24). The trajectory of Saddam’s meteoric rise to the very top echelons of Ba’ath also betrayed a proclivity for revengeful and bloodthirsty tactics that were to be employed in full measure on errant scientists and researchers of his pet project, codenamed Petrochemical 3, talisman of unassailability in the Persian Gulf region. Bakr was as unaware of the hermetically guarded atomic research at Al Haitham laboratory as of Saddam’s 1979 palace coup (early financing of the $18 billion PC3 came from siphoning off 5 percent of Iraq’s annual oil-revenue, p.38).


Saddam’s Presidential inauguration was soured by Israel’s second-most audacious covert action in hostile territory after the Entebbe rescue, aerial bombardment of the French-supplied Osirak Nuclear Reactor in the outskirts of Baghdad (October 1980). Iraqi scientists had planned to separate weapons-grade enriched Uranium from the $80 million dollar reactor and develop rudimentary bombs, but Menachem Begin’s daring strike ended the option though not Saddam’s determination (“…we will build this again and make it a thousand times more powerful and ensure that our enemies can never strike at us”, p.113). Three broad strategies were devised for future progress and avoidance of detection- indiscriminate shopping of fuel, metallurgy, expertise and ancillary tools from West Germany, Britain, Russia and France; playing the ‘Iran Card’ before Ronald Reagan and ingratiating Iraq into America’s “new best friend” (it remained an ex post facto ‘Lessons Learned’ admission by the United States that Saddam’s “expansion of nuclear weapons research was overshadowed by the fall of the Shah of Iran” throughout the eighties, pp.141-144); and meticulously camouflaging a nuclear empire comprising twenty four installations and countless support facilities all over the country even as handpicked Russian and Hungarian IAEA inspectors bestowed clean chits.


Saddam’s calamitous decision to invade Kuwait and the subsequent course of Iraqi confrontation with the West were intertwined with the fate of PC3. The eight-year war with Iran had left him an $ 80 million debt and gaping shortages to the nuclear project. The Kuwaiti Emir had enough gold and foreign currencies to fund PC3 and this was of course a legitimate payment for having been ‘saved’ from Iran by the leading Arab nation! When military exercises and shadowboxing on the desert borderland failed to extract the desired plunder, Saddam reasoned that in the long-run permanently annexing the ‘19th province’ as Kuwait came to be termed, “meant he could steal $ 20 million a day from its oil fields” (p. 182) and find a permanent source of supply to all his weaponisation programmes. Among the first actions of Iraqi occupation forces in August 1990 was to ransack the Kuwait Central Bank. Saddam was “enraged…that the amount of money and gold in the vaults was barely enough to keep his nuclear programme going for one month” (p. 185). Ergo, the long-run permanent occupation became all the more necessary.   


Efforts at brokering a last minute diplomatic compromise were stonewalled by Tariq Aziz in January 1991, even when America warned of nuclear retribution if chemical and biological weapons were used on allied forces massing in Saudi Arabia as the UN deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait drew to a close. “Saddam didn’t want a compromise. James Baker couldn’t fathom why” (p. 3). Unbeknown to all but Saddam’s closest confidants, a crash nuclear device (Beach Ball) was being readied by overworked scientists to be detonated on the outer ring road encircling Kuwait city, at the latest by February 1991. The purpose was to deter western forces from making moves beyond Desert Shield. However, a lucky strike by a F117 pilot on the very first day of Desert Storm (January 17th 1991) flattened Tuwaitha where reactors were recasting Uranium fuel for the crude bomb and thus accidentally saved Kuwait from centuries of radiation damage. The Al Atheer and Tarmiya complexes storing calutrons for separating weapons-grade Uranium were also damaged by fluke as Grade B targets during the course of the thirty eight day air-attack. As was to be expected from the lowered priority given to suspected nuclear nerve centres during the Gulf War, “the heart of Saddam’s nuclear programme was still beating” when the allied advance refrained from occupying Iraq in early March (p. 199). The dictator was reasonably pleased amidst the privation and suffering of the Iraqi people that the ceasefire agreement General Schwarzkopf handed over did not once mention the word ‘nuclear’.  


The UNSCOM experience was sullied not only by Iraqi obduracy and non-co-operation with weapons inspection on grounds that nuclear territory was “Iraq’s national heritage and culture” (p. 227), but also by IAEA and American squabbles over intelligence sharing. Complicating the arms verification in an adversarial situation were the CIA controversially slipping in its own agents into the UNSCOM teams as a unique opportunity to infiltrate spies into a hitherto impenetrable state and the White House wanting the “IAEA rowed out of the operation” in return for latest spy-plane tracked information of Saddam’s dissimulation tactics (p. 226). Nonetheless, in documents seized and confirmed from top nuclear physicists like Jaffar Dhia, UNSCOM came to the inescapable conclusion that Saddam’s ‘smoking gun’ was way past the experimental stage but a jigsaw in which “too many pieces were missing” (p. 232).


In 1995, Hussein Kamil, Saddam’s son-in-law, second in command and minister of PC3 defected to Jordan to escape the wrath of a jealous Uday Hussein, heir apparent to his father at the time, and helped fill in some of the missing pieces- the shards of radioactive nuclear chaff fitted to warheads and dropped on Iranian soldiers in the Fao peninsula (until then, it was known only that Saddam commissioned mustard gas and possibly VX use in the Iran-Iraq war); the crash programme of maiming Kuwait that fortune aborted; the intention of  detonating another Beach Ball in Israel’s deep-water harbour of Haifa; and the ultimate ambition of owning ready-to-use nuclear payloads fitted to IRBMs. On Kamil’s cue, Iraq had to hand over to the IAEA half a million pages of secret documents, about 20 tons of high-strength maraging steel and stocks of carbon fibre for more than a thousand gas centrifuge machines that could churn out nuclear fuel. Yet, this was a proverbial tip of the iceberg. After Kamil was murdered for the defection, Saddam himself took charge of PC3 and decreed that “the most sensitive components of his nuclear programme must be moved every thirty days to prevent them from falling into enemy hands” (p. 243). A Special Security Organisation (SSO) was created with the sole purpose of thwarting UNSCOM by piloting refrigerated trucks that carried the crucial remnants of the nuclear programme to undisclosed mobile destinations.    



Before concluding, some of the book’s stylistic lacunae may be briefly commented upon. The use of dialogues among protagonists, prominently the Iraqi leadership and nuclear scientists, tends to over-dramatise the narrative when these conversations are clearly imaginary re-constructions of the authors. Saddam’s sadistic private life or Uday’s drunken antics among his cronies are largely hearsay accounts that could have been presented in third person instead of a live commentary mode. In sections where the text veers away into non-nuclear subjects such as the debauchery, licentiousness and avarice of the Hussein family, the book reads at best like a journalistic concoction and at worst like thriller fiction. Since sources comprise the single biggest problem with a book on autarkic Iraq (“only dead men tell tales about Saddam Hussein”, p.1), readers may also have wished for footnotes when sensitive or theatrical information is adduced. While the authors acknowledge, “a brave band of Iraqi men and women helped us with our research”, who these were and what secrets they divulged is not conveyed. Nuclear chemist Hussein Shahristani (best friend of Jaffar Dhia, father of the Iraqi bomb) and a number of his persecuted colleagues on PC3 who defected following the chaos during Desert Storm could not have been the lone sources consulted by the authors for such an in-depth emprise.        


Nonetheless, the message of Brighter than the Baghdad Sun is frighteningly relevant for regional stability and security in West Asia. Bhatia and McGrory’s revelations lay bare the intentional side of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions, which added to his CBW pedigree and threatening behaviour towards neighbours fully justify epithets like ‘rogue state’, ‘pariah state’ and ‘terrorist state’, in that Iraq has been a consistent violator of norms that constitute the international system. UNSCOM’s experience has proved that it is difficult to stop a determined proliferator in the absence of strong international unity and will. Of late, Russia, France and China have tended to be more and more sympathetic to the Iraqi case against renewed arms inspections and despite Clinton’s rhetoric of ‘aggressive containment’, America is clearly “not prepared to pay the political and economic costs” of sustained pressure on Iraq (p. 261). But for all complacent voices who delude themselves that Saddam’s nuclear capability has been caged, UNSCOM Chief Richard Butler’s stock-taking report in 1998 or high-profile weapon inspector Scott Ritter’s resignation after imputing western leaders of “appeasing Saddam” in the same year suffice as forewarnings of clear and present danger.


IAEA monitoring managed to remove most of Iraq’s fissile material but the blueprints and the hidden components are still in the hands of trigger-happy Saddam. His formbook contains enough reasons for the world to come together and devise stricter verification formulae backed by potent threat of force while at the same time not adversely affecting lives of average Iraqis who have absorbed much of the shock of economic sanctions. Resolution, commitment and ingenuity are imperatives in dealing with Dr. Strangelove of Iraq.   



(Sreeram Sundar Chaulia studied General History at St.Stephen's College, Delhi, and took a second BA in Modern History from University College, Oxford. He is currently analysing India’s ruling political party BJP's Foreign Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science)