Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Iraq possessed the most aggressive and well-funded nuclear military program in the developing world. Closely overseen by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the program systematically deceived international inspectors and only came to light after the defection of two key figures in the effort.
Although American officials claimed that Iraq could have a working nuclear weapon within as little as six months, it now appears the program was never able to rematerialize after international inspectors dismantled much of the program after the 1995 defections.
But there is no doubt from the early 1970s Iraq was a nation intent on possessing a nuclear bomb.
Iraq appeared to be a cooperative state in the fight to control the spread of nuclear weapons. In 1968, the government signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and the country ratified a year later.
Iraqi officials also worked from very early on to develop strong ties with the United Nation's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. But according to one of the scientists whose job it was to build Saddam his bomb, the Iraqi government from the very beginning planned to use the international community to help it in its military goals.
"In 1973, we decided to acquire a 40 megawatt research reactor, a fuel-manufacturing plant, and nuclear fuel-reprocessing facilities, all under cover of acquiring the expertise needed to eventually build and operate nuclear power plants and produce and recycle nuclear fuel," Khidir Hamza, a defector who worked in the Iraqi nuclear agency, wrote in a 1998 article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. "Our hidden agenda was to clandestinely develop the expertise and infrastructure needed to produce weapons-grade plutonium."
The program developed to such a point that Israel, fearing Iraq aimed to use a nuclear weapon against the Jewish state, launched an air raid in 1981 to bomb a major Iraqi reactor.
"The atomic bombs which that reactor was capable of producing whether from enriched uranium or from plutonium, would be of the Hiroshima size. Thus a mortal danger to the people of Israel progressively arose," the Israeli government said in a statement at the time.
The attack was timed to minimize casualties and take out the reactor before it became operational, therefore no radiation could be spread as a result of the bombing.
Although experts project that the bombing set back the Iraqi nuclear effort several years, according to Hamza the attack only intensified Saddam's drive to develop a bomb.
"At the beginning we had approximately 500 people working, which increased to 7,000 working after the Israeli bombing. The secret program became a much larger and ambitious program," Hamza told the Carnegie Non-Proliferation Project shortly after the 2000 release of his book, "Saddam's Bombmaker."
Although the program benefited from increased support from the regime, the nuclear efforts had not been able to produce a final product before the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. During the ensuing war, coalition fighters bombed the Iraqi nuclear sites and in the aftermath of the war, U.S. officials insisted inspectors move quickly to account for the long-suspected program.
The United Nations began an aggressive series of inspections after the 1991 Gulf War. Although material began immediately to come to light, Hamza and others were able to work with IAEA inspectors to hide the full scope of the Iraqi effort.
to Hamza, Iraq countered the investigation by reaching out to
the lead IAEA inspector, Maurizio Zifferero. Hamza said Iraqi
officials appeared to cooperate with him, even while they continued
to obfuscate the real intent of the Iraqi efforts.
"We viewed him as a friend, we took him places, he accepted our gifts, and he brought us gifts. When we went to Italy we were wined and dined by him. It was relationship with a friend, not just with an inspector. This continued even after the war. That was why they accepted our story until 1995 that we had no bomb programs," Hamza said.
Everything changed when Saddam's son-in-law and the man in charge
of the nuclear program, Gen. Hussein Kamal, left Iraq and met
with IAEA officials in Jordan in August 1995. Although Kamal dismissed
Hamza as "a professional liar," he did direct inspectors to a
massive cache of documents buried at his house that appeared to
corroborate Hamza's story. These documents revealed a much larger
program than any had imagined.
Kamal also told inspectors that Iraq's limited cooperation with the IAEA was done only to divert attention from ongoing projects happening in other parts of the country.
"It was the strategy to hide, not to reveal the sites," Kamal told Zifferero, according to a transcript of the conversation.
Kamal brought to light the size of the Iraqi effort, but paid a price for his admission. He was persuaded or pressured to return to Iraq and reportedly told he would be forgiven. Within hours of his return, he was executed on Saddam's orders.
The IAEA inspectors, fueled by these admissions, produced a much more comprehensive look at the Iraqi program.
"As a result of the IAEA's inspection activities, a technically coherent picture of Iraq's clandestine nuclear program has evolved revealing a program aimed at the production of an arsenal of nuclear weapons, based on implosion technology," the inspectors concluded in a 1997 report.
Inspectors found Iraq had developed a sophisticated uranium enrichment program and had designs for the construction of atomic weapons on a large scale. The IAEA also accused Iraq of a systematic effort to deceive its inspectors.
"Understanding of the details of Iraq's clandestine nuclear program has been severely hampered by Iraq's persistence in a policy of concealment and understatement of the program's scope and achievements. The most extreme example of this policy was Iraq's initial endeavor to conceal the program in its entirety by removing and concealing tell-tale equipment and materials from the sites involved," the IAEA inspection team reported.
Much of the program was dismantled or placed under IAEA control. There were designs, components and other material still hidden from inspectors, but reports indicate the bulk of Iraq's nuclear program was given over to the international inspectors.
By 1998, international inspectors and Iraqi officials were fighting over every inspection. Iraq accused Americans in the inspection teams of being spies and U.N. officials accused Iraq of not cooperating.
In the end inspectors left the country and did not return until the threat of war loomed again in late 2002.
When, under intense American pressure, the United Nations returned weapons inspectors to Iraq in November 2002, IAEA officials reported little progress by the Iraqi regime in since 1998.
In the lead up to war, the United States claimed the Iraqi government was actively pursuing nuclear material to build a bomb. President Bush said Iraq was seeking uranium yellow cake from an African nation, a charge that later was highly disputed.
He also told the American public that Iraqi nuclear ambitions remained a major threat.
evidence indicates that Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear weapons
program. ... Satellite photographs reveal that Iraq is rebuilding
facilities at sites that have been part of its nuclear program
in the past. Iraq has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum
tubes and other equipment needed for gas centrifuges, which are
used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons," President Bush said
in October 2002 in Cincinnati, Ohio.
"If the Iraqi regime is able to produce, buy, or steal an amount of highly enriched uranium a little larger than a single softball, it could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year. And if we allow that to happen, a terrible line would be crossed," the president warned.
So partly fueled by the president's warning and by dire predictions from Hamza and others, the United States invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein. But in the wake of the invasion no major program was uncovered, although several components and plans were found buried at one scientist's home.
Scientists, once fearful of possible retribution by Saddam's forces, told news agencies that the program was not reconstituted after the IAEA dismantled it in the mid-1990s.
"I think even the inspectors when they went there, they knew ... what the activity was there. And you know [a nuclear weapons program] is very sophisticated," Dr. Abbas Balasem, director general of the hazardous materials section of the Ministry of Science and Technology, told Reuters in September 2003.
"Biological weapons or chemical weapons -- you can do something in this area. But in the nuclear area, you need a reactor, for example. So it was difficult for Iraq to restart it again," Balasem added.