- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 6, 2002

BOSTON If U.N. 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 United States and United Nations wrangle over a new inspection regime, former weapons inspectors warn against becoming preoccupied hunting for missiles, bombs and laboratories. They recommend 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 Saddam to replace, says David Kay, the U.N.'s former top nuclear-weapons inspector in Iraq. "Facilities you can destroy," he said. "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 bomb makers, a translator may not be necessary. That's because many in Saddam's weapons-development brain trust apparently got their training at universities in the United States, Britain and Europe.

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

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

"Most of the nuclear era's earlier programs, the core personnel, were U.S.-trained," Mr. Hamza said. "We were telling them actually where to send the [Iraqi] students."

Even after the Gulf war, many Iraqi students continued to attend U.S. universities to study nuclear physics and engineering.

Mr. 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 said. "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 doctorates earned in the United States corroborates that personal observation. Researchers at Georgia State University in Atlanta found that from 1990 to 1999, 1,215 science and engineering Ph.D.s were granted to students from five of the seven countries listed by the State Department as sponsors of terrorism.

Still, that's only about 2 percent of degrees granted to foreign-born students, and Iraqis earned 112 science and engineering Ph.D.s. 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.

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