Book Review

Saddam's Bombmaker

Khidir Hamza
352 pages, Touchstone, 2000


This is a book by the former head of Saddam Hussein's atomic bomb project revealing the experience of a nuclear physicist working, supposedly under duress, in Saddam Hussein's police state, to bring Western technology to Iraq in order to create weapons of mass destruction.

After their French-built nuclear reactor at Osirak was destroyed in 1983 by the Israelis, Iraq decided to build a uranium bomb based on the original Manhattan project design. Hamza connived his way to a top leadership position in Saddam's nuclear program. He exhibits evident enjoyment of his role in designing weapons of mass destruction and of his scheming and wrangling with other corrupt Iraqis and Westerners attempting to smuggle bomb components into Iraq. He also describes the eagerness of Russian nuclear scientists to go to Iraq. According to Hamza, many of these scientists are now working on nuclear weapons in Iraq.

The history of Saddam's bomb is intimately tied to Saddam's chemical weapons project.

The first victims of Hussein's chemical warfare plants were Iraqi Shiite muslims. In 1984-5, Saddam's first test of chemical weapons was the killing of 150 Iraqi Shiites at German-built chemical and biological warfare plants in Samara and Salman Pak. Hundreds more were poisoned in gruesome human experiments carried out by General Amir al-Saadi. By 1987, Hussein was using chemical weapons against the Iranians and his rebellious Iraqi Kurdish minority. At Halabjah, he carried out the famous 1988 massacre of over 5000 Kurds with mustard gas and tabun, sarin, and soman nerve gas. After using chemical weapons against Iranian troops at Manjoon Island, the Iranians sued for peace.

When Iran sought a truce shortly after Manjoon Island, Saddam drew the wrong lesson: that weapons of mass destruction could bring victory. In 1991, when the U.S. ambassador April Glaspie told Saddam that America didn't care about Arab conflicts, Iraq, destitute after the Iran-Iraq war, promptly invaded Kuwait. The resulting Desert Storm War slowed Iraq's bombmaking activities, but paradoxically also proved to Saddam that he needed a weapon to act as an equalizer even more, not just to destroy Israel but also to deter America from overthrowing his government. During the war he rushed to produce a single bomb at the facility built by Hamza at al-Atheer, using the Russian-built reactor at al-Tuwaitha to provide the polonium needed as a trigger. Saddam's goal during the war was to place a nuclear bomb on a missile to fire against Israel if the Allies invaded Iraq. Luckily, what he ended up with was a monstrosity four feet in diameter that could barely be carried by a plane.

This book is more like a bad spy novel than a documentation of Saddam's chemical and nuclear plans. One disappointment is that the book contains no technical details about the Iraqi bomb. Hamza claims that after the war, the PLO set up clandestine bases in Iraq and used them to plant biological or chemical weapons in neighboring countries, but he gives no further details. He also claims that the Gulf War Syndrome is also prevalent in Iraq, and that it was caused by biological and chemical weapons, but again the book gives no details.

Partly from fear of nuclear annihilation by Israel, and partly from fear of retribution by the sadistic and unpredictable Saddam Hussein, Hamza defected to America. Although he is enthusiastic about America, its culture, and freedom, there is no hint that his escape was motivated by any moral qualms. Hamza emphasizes that many of his former colleagues are still trapped in Iraq. The only way to prevent Saddam from completing his bomb and starting a nuclear holocaust in the Middle East, says Hamza, is for the U.S. Government to make it possible for these scientists to escape.

October 14, 2001 Back