Tuesday, July 25, 2000

When Israeli jets bombed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, the destruction appeared to be a clear-cut victory for nonproliferation. Tel Aviv’s bold operation had denied one of the world’s worst rogue states a quick entrance to the nuclear club.
But a new book by two British journalists, Shyam Bhatia and Daniel McGrory, takes an opposing view. “Brighter than the Baghdad Sun” argues that the raid hardened Saddam Hussein’s resolve to build the bomb. And, more importantly, it taught him that to be successful he must expand the program into hundreds of research units, hire scores more nuclear scientists and then hide the whole operation, underground if possible.
Saddam’s vast investment of oil revenues might have supported his plan had he not overreached by invading Kuwait. He was not only defeated on the battlefield, but allied jets found and destroyed most large research centers. Saddam then had to play hide-and-seek with United Nations inspectors until he finally expelled them in 1998, prompting President Clinton’s “impeachment bombings.”
The authors do not present a conclusive case that Iraq is still close to becoming a nuclear power. But they suggest Saddam is in possession of a nuclear device, a “beach ball,” that he weighed using against Kuwait. The book traces the history of Iraq’s nuclear program, sketches Saddam’s life and rise to power (he was sexually abused as a boy), and tells how he runs his country through a brutal security force.
The dictator, who escaped a series of assassination attempts, has grown as secretive as his atomic program. His main palace is described this way:
“Each of the men from the Amn Al Khass brigade lives in a luxury villa inside Saddam’s fortress. They have their own hospital, restaurant, sports club and schools for their children. Every six months they are given a new car and they earn twice the salary of a cabinet minister.”
The book’s sourcing is vague. A large part of the material seems based on 1995 defector and Saddam brother-in-law Hussein Kamil, who blabbed to the Central Intelligence Agency, then was executed upon returning home from Jordan. Some scenes are questionable. The authors contend that Hillary Clinton slapped her husband in clear view of his national security team. They also recreate Saddam’s private meetings, complete with verbatim quotes, a la Bob Woodward.
The book is particularly tough on the West. London trains Iraq’s future bomb-makers. The greedy French ship a reactor to Iraq, feigning ignorance at its real purpose. Germany looks the other way as nuclear bomb and chemical weapons components clear customs. “Shopping Trips on the Rhine,” the authors call it.
In Washington, the CIA is largely in the dark on the extent of Saddam’s nuclear ambitions. The authors charge the spy agency did not even know of one key nuclear facility at Al Atheer.
Saddam has hired hundreds of nuclear scientists. Two Western-trained experts are featured: Jaffar Dhia Jaffar, who, after the Osirak bombing, devised a nuclear comeback based on 1940s technology; and Hussein Shahristani, who was imprisoned and tortured for noncooperation, then rehabilitated. In all, the authors estimate Saddam has spent over $300 billion in oil cash on nuke development, the ill-fated “super gun,” and terrorists such as Abu Nidal.
Saddam is portrayed as a rapist, torturer and paranoid who understands the advantages of charm. During the costly 1980s war with Iran, he dispatched the suave and urbane Nizar Hamdoun to Washington to woo the Reagan administration. Mr. Hamdoun impressed congressmen with his warnings that only Iraq stands between Israel and militant Iranians. Few in the capital seemed to realize that the charming diplomat rose from the same Ba’ath Party that produced Saddam and his henchmen.
In those early days, before the Gulf War unmasked Iraq’s full intentions, Baghdad was a mirage of friendship to the West. Only Israel saw through the charade. The authors suggest that the Mossad assassinated a number of international arms dealers and scientists helping Saddam.
Mr. Bhatia and Mr. McGrory also report that the Clinton administration has backed assassination attempts against the Iraqi president. But they argue the policy is flawed, since the Ba’ath Party’s rigid control will only produce another gangster as Saddam’s successor. “Clinton’s policy was, in short, simplistic,” the authors write.
If Saddam’s heir apparent is his jet-setting and reckless son, Uday, there will be no drop off in cruelty, no overtures to the West. The book portrays him as just as ruthless and maniacal as his dad. After all, he has diverted milk and medicine meant for a suffering people and pocketed the cash.

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