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September 26, 2004
Obeidi, Part II

The New York Times publishes today a follow-up of an article on Saddam's nuclear program that appeared in The Scotsman yesterday, which I noted here. The Times allows Dr. Mahdi Obeidi to speak for himself, which he already has done in a book, The Bomb In My Garden. Dr. Obeidi's article has a little bit for everyone on all sides of the Iraqi debate:

What was really going in Iraq before the American invasion last year? Iraq's nuclear weapons program was on the threshold of success before the 1991 invasion of Kuwait - there is no doubt in my mind that we could have produced dozens of nuclear weapons within a few years - but was stopped in its tracks by United Nations weapons inspectors after the Persian Gulf war and was never restarted. During the 1990's, the inspectors discovered all of the laboratories, machines and materials we had used in the nuclear program, and all were destroyed or otherwise incapacitated.

By 1998, when Saddam Hussein evicted the weapons inspectors from Iraq, all that was left was the dangerous knowledge of hundreds of scientists and the blueprints and prototype parts for the centrifuge, which I had buried under a tree in my garden.

In addition to the inspections, the sanctions that were put in place by the United Nations after the gulf war made reconstituting the program impossible. During the 1980's, we had relied heavily on the international black market for equipment and technology; the sanctions closed that avenue.

So far, Obeidi makes a strong case for weapons inspectors, save for one subtle piece that becomes apparent later on: the Iraqis already had the expertise and had managed to hide enough of their research, the most critical of it in Obeidi's own garden.

Another factor in the mothballing of the program was that Saddam Hussein was profiting handsomely from the United Nations oil-for-food program, building palaces around the country with the money he skimmed. I think he didn't want to risk losing this revenue stream by trying to restart a secret weapons program.

Of course Saddam didn't want to openly rock the boat while stuffing his bank accounts with Western cash, primarily from the same nations that opposed the eventual effort that deposed him. On the other hand, there wasn't much boat-rocking with which to be concerned, when many of the same people -- including the UN bureaucracy entrusted to enforcing and and maintaining the economic sanctions -- directly benefitted from Saddam's kickbacks. The monetary motivation to keep things running smoothly existed in spades on all sides except the Iraqi people, whose money went everywhere except onto their plates.

Obeidi then emphasizes the real threat of leaving Saddam in power, as I noted yesterday:

Was Iraq a potential threat to the United States and the world? Threat is always a matter of perception, but our nuclear program could have been reinstituted at the snap of Saddam Hussein's fingers. The sanctions and the lucrative oil-for-food program had served as powerful deterrents, but world events - like Iran's current efforts to step up its nuclear ambitions - might well have changed the situation.

Iraqi scientists had the knowledge and the designs needed to jumpstart the program if necessary. And there is no question that we could have done so very quickly. In the late 1980's, we put together the most efficient covert nuclear program the world has ever seen. In about three years, we gained the ability to enrich uranium and nearly become a nuclear threat; we built an effective centrifuge from scratch, even though we started with no knowledge of centrifuge technology. Had Saddam Hussein ordered it and the world looked the other way, we might have shaved months if not years off our previous efforts.

The sanctions regime would not have lasted forever, and even after 9/11 UN members pressed for an end to it and a restoration of Saddam as a major trading partner. With billions in cash reserves from OFF corruption and billions more coming in from legitimate trade, Saddam could have used the core of his dormant nuclear research to quickly reconstitute an enormous threat -- and by hiding his chief researcher and all of the necessary data, it would have been, as Obeidi says, a snap.

And let's not forget the revelation last night that a number of Iraqi nuclear scientists and their materials were smuggled into Syria just before the invasion. Obeidi warns the world of the danger presented by his former colleagues:

So what now? The dictator may be gone, but that doesn't mean the nuclear problem is behind us. Even under the watchful eyes of Saddam Hussein's security services, there were worries that our scientists might escape to other countries or sell their knowledge to the highest bidder. This expertise is even more valuable today, with nuclear technology ever more available on the black market and a proliferation of peaceful energy programs around the globe that use equipment easily converted to military use.

We are seeing that exact dynamic in Syria's attempts to transfer these scientists to Teheran -- the Southwest Asian nation believed to be closest to developing their own nuclear weaponry and possessing the missile technology to deliver it anywhere in the region.

Obeidi's experience and testimony underscores the need for the removal of dictators who are determined to acquire WMD. No amount of inspections and sanctions will quench their thirst for the weapons they feel will cause the West to falter rather than confront.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at September 26, 2004 9:55 AM

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