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October 3, 2004
Obeidi, Part III

Frequent CQ contributor Bandit points me to this Los Angeles Times article on Dr. Mahdi Obeidi, about whom I have written two posts. Obeidi ran the Iraqi nuclear-weapons program during the run-up to the first Gulf War, and afterwards managed to hide the core of his research -- and a prototype centrifuge for enriching uranium -- from UN weapons inspectors until the American invasion in early 2003.

The Times gives a more personal view of Obeidi than the Scotsman article did and touches less on Saddam's desire to keep the nuclear-weapon development option open for his post-sanctions ambitions. Bob Drogin does report that Obeidi had more help than he first let on, and that more of his colleagues have evaded accounting than first thought:

But it is far less clear what happened to most of the 500 other scientists U.S. officials considered to be at the core of Hussein's programs to build missiles and nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

U.S. officials have intercepted offers from Iran in recent months to hire several former Iraqi nuclear and missile scientists. None are known to have gone to Tehran, which Washington believes is trying to build a nuclear weapon.

But U.S. officials are also concerned about the danger that remains inside Iraq. "The immediate fear is the proximity of these scientists to the insurgents and terrorists in Iraq," a U.S. official who travels frequently to Baghdad said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "That has become a compelling issue for us."

Two of the missing scientists were Obeidi's primary assistants, which would certainly be cause for alarm. Drogin also reports that some of the Iraqi nuclear and WMD scientists have gone to work for "other Arab nations," which given the options in that area, doesn't exactly give me peace of mind, either. And again, Drogin and Obeidi emphasize that Hussein actively took steps to prepare for a revitalization of his WMD programs after the end of international sanctions, even if Saddam increasingly appeared insane:

Duelfer also has told colleagues that evidence indicated that Hussein intended to mobilize his scientists to resume production of illicit arms if Iraq ever were free of U.N. inspections, trade sanctions and other international oversight. He found evidence of small clandestine laboratories, procurement of banned materials overseas, and work on illegal missiles and drones. ...

Obeidi, who met Hussein three times, said there was "no question" that the former Iraqi president wanted to revive his illicit weapons programs, but added that it wasn't clear whether the dictator knew his regime had no active programs to build them. Obeidi said Hussein was a "lunatic" whose grip on reality was increasingly unstable in the years before the war.

Obeidi's assurance that Saddam was a hallucinatory lunatic who had no clue that his WMD programs had halted offer no assurances to anyone. First, Obeidi himself along with the IIS ensured that enough of their previous work remained hidden under his lotus tree that would allow them a huge head start on rebuilding the nuclear program. Secondly, with France, Germany, Russia, and several members of Congress pushing the US to conclude sanctions with Iraq, we would have been trusting a lunatic to act rationally with these capabilities.

How can anyone stand in front of the world and say that Saddam was insane -- but that he offered no danger to the US and the West? At least Obeidi doesn't claim that; he's made it clear that deposing Saddam was the only way to keep him from developing and using WMD. He also tells Drogin who the first target would have been:

By the time the Persian Gulf War began in January 1991, he had built a prototype centrifuge system capable of turning Iraq's small stockpile of enriched uranium into weapons-grade fuel for a crude atomic bomb. Obeidi suspects that Hussein would have used it against Israel.

"We were so close to getting a bomb," Obeidi said. "We were so close to getting tens or hundreds of bombs. To us, the sky was the limit.... Looking back, the world was lucky."

In order to escape the invasion, Obeidi turned to David Albright, who had been with the IAEA. Albright used his connections with the US government to get the CIA to spirit Obeidi and his family out of Iraq, along with the nuclear research and the prototype centrifuge buried in his yard. And Albright notes that the Iraqi program could have easily built a bomb with the materials it had in 1991, but just hadn't realized it.

Once again, Obeidi shows us that further delay and further inspections meant little to the Hussein regime. Saddam planned for the eventual collapse of the sanctions and a return to normal trade so that he could once again build his doomsday weapons in the dark. And once built, those weapons could have been used anywhere by anyone Saddam wished, including people like Abu Nidal and Abu Masab al-Zarqawi and others like them Saddam hid in Iraq.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at October 3, 2004 9:34 AM

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