The brains behind Iraq's arsenal

US-educated Iraqi scientists may be as crucial to Iraq's threat as its war hardware.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

If UN inspectors return soon to Iraq, it won't be just weapons of mass destruction they're hunting. Perhaps an equally crucial mission will be to find the people who know how to build them.

As the US and United Nations wrangle over a new inspection regime, former weapons inspectors warn against becoming preoccupied hunting for missiles, bombs, and laboratories – and instead focusing more on finding Iraq's top weapons experts.

Over the years, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has assembled an army of microbiologists, chemical engineers, and nuclear physicists who, if questioned carefully, may reveal as much about weapons development as any search for petri dishes or aluminum tubes.

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Indeed, unlike military hardware, "human capital," will not be easy for Mr. Hussein to replace, says David Kay, the UN's former top nuclear-weapons inspector in Iraqi. "Facilities you can destroy," he says. "But Saddam has the money to repurchase the best equipment. The one thing they don't have in abundance is the embedded human capital."

One irony is that if inspectors do locate any of the bombmakers, a translator may not be necessary. That's because many in Hussein's weapons-development brain trust apparently got their training at universities in the US, Britain, and Europe.

Just ask Khidir Hamza, who received his master's degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his PhD in nuclear physics from Florida State University. As Hussein's director of nuclear weaponization, he became the highest-ranking scientist to defect in 1994.

In an interview, Dr. Hamza recalled a meeting in the late 1970s when he and other Iraqi scientists sat down to plan the nation's new nuclear-weapons development plan. With him at the table were Husham Sharif and Moyesser al-Mallah, both US university-educated nuclear experts, he says.

"Most of the nuclear era's earlier programs, the core personnel, were US trained," he says. "We were telling them actually where to send the [Iraqi] students."

A grand education plan

When the 1980s arrived, however, British-, Soviet-, and European-trained nuclear scientists had begun filling the ranks. By decade's end, only about half the 30 or so top Iraqi nuclear experts were US educated, he says. That diversification was part of Hussein's grand education plan.

But Hussein "wised up, Hamza says, "when he found out that East European- and Soviet-trained personnel were totally useless. He needed English-speaking university experts. So he spread it among the US, Britain, and Canada."

Even after the Gulf War, many Iraqi students continued to attend US universities to study nuclear physics and engineering. Dr. Kay, the former weapons inspector, discovered this during a 1993 visit to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In his lecture to a roomful of nuclear-engineering graduate students, he was surprised to find nearly a dozen young Iraqis.

"This was after the Gulf War – and they were here quite legally," he says. "I was talking about what we had learned about Iraq. They asked very good questions. Most of them intended to go back home."

A recent study of PhDs earned in the US corroborates some of that personal observation. Researchers at Georgia State University in Atlanta found that from 1990 to 1999, 1,215 science and engineering PhDs were granted to students from five of the seven countries listed by the US State Department as sponsors of terrorism.

Still, that's only about 2 percent of degrees granted to foreign-born students, with Iraqis earning 112 science and engineering PhDs. Of those, 14 were in sensitive fields like nuclear or chemical engineering or microbiology. There's no clear indication how many returned to Iraq.

But small numbers may be misleading. It takes only one or two gifted students to run an entire weapons program, experts say. "It isn't a large number, and we know a number of people don't plan to go back [to Iraq]," says Paula Stephan, coauthor of the Georgia State study. "Having said all of that, it's still a positive number, right?"

Even so, few suggest simply closing all university doors to foreign students, who make up a key component of US graduate programs. Instead, the Bush administration has taken steps to scrutinize student visa applications. Students applying from a few dozen nations to study "sensitive" fields like nuclear physics will get extra scrutiny. A new visa tracking system is also in the works to ensure students who do come to the US actually enroll.

Yet even these new systems may not catch students who apply to attend US universities as a history major, say, and then a year later switch to nuclear engineering, Kay says.

What they need to be alert to is a new generation of young experts to succeed the likes of Abdul Nassir Hindawi, who received his PhD in microbiology from Mississippi State University in Starkville in 1969. In the 1980s, he became the architect of Hussein's bioweapons program. He tried to defect and was arrested in 1998.

In fact, one of the reasons more Iraqi scientists don't defect is that Hussein may slaughter a defector's entire family, Hamza says. Many scientists are especially fearful during an interview with weapons inspectors – particularly if an Iraqi government watcher is present.

Fear factor

Charles Duelfer, former deputy chairman of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), who helped lead the search for weapons, says it was not unusual to come across American-trained Iraqi experts.

"Even when we found these people, it was often clear that they were frightened of saying the wrong thing," Duelfer says. The problem is that if questioning is done under past rules, "these people will remain terrified."

With this perhaps in mind, the Bush administration has proposed to the UN that scientists and their families be plucked from Iraq for interviews abroad where they won't have to fear retaliation.

In the end, say experts, human intelligence will be crucial. "If you can take out the key people, you've taken their program away from them," says Richard Spertzel, who oversaw the dismantling of Iraq's bioweapons program in the 1990s. "But first they have to find them."

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