The brains behind Iraq's arsenal
US-educated Iraqi scientists may be as crucial to Iraq's threat as its war hardware.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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."
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."