Stopping the Saddam bomb

William Safire

November 07, 1990|By William Safire

WASHINGTON — IN AUGUST of 1989, a terrifying explosion ripped apart the Al Qaqaa munitions plant in Iraq.

Sound waves carried the fact of the non-nuclear disaster for hundreds of miles, but news of what had happened remained Saddam Hussein's most closely guarded secret.

Farzad Bazoft, a journalist for a British publication, disguised himself as a medical technician and went to take a look. He was caught, and despite pleas from civilized capitals (Bush's White House, in its appeasement mode, remained mute) the too-inquisitive reporter was hanged.

That sent a message to obsequious U.S. senators and diplomats that Saddam sure knew how to deal with the press, but his defiance of civilized norms sent a more significant message to the world's intelligence agencies: the Iraqi dictator would go to any length to protect the secret of Al Qaqaa.

There is reason to believe the secret is this: At Al Qaqaa (pronounced with two choking sounds), a material was being produced called HMX, which stands for "high melting point explosive." This was what was accidentally set off.

Dozens of Iraqi and foreign scientists and munitions technicians paid with their lives to determine this fact: control of detonation required electronic switches and low-inductance, high-voltage capacitors that Iraq did not yet have.

After frantic repairs to the damaged munitions plant, Iraq was able to recommence production of HMX, along with another exotic explosive called RDX, which stands for "rapid detonation explosive."

But it still lacked the sophisticated triggers calibrated to millionths of a second.

In March of this year, American and British agents seized some of these triggers being smuggled to Iraq via London's Heathrow Airport. It is not known for certain if other shipments of capacitors evaded detection, but that possibility cannot be dismissed.

What the seizure did confirm was that the technology being sought at Al Qaqaa was closely related to the detonation of HMX and RDX.

Why is that information so important? Because it tells the world the purpose of the explosive material and the state of the art in Iraq.

The purpose of high-melting-point and rapid-detonation explosives is to implode on uranium-235. If timed correctly, that then sets off a nuclear explosion.

Your next question: Do they have the "yellowcake" to make gaseous uranium hexafluoride that can be fed into centrifuges to separate out the U-235?

Beats me. But ever since writing in this space a couple of months ago that 26 centrifuges were to be the first targets of an air strike on Iraq, I have been asked by a variety of scientists, spooks and snoops how I knew that Iraqi nuclear scientists decided on the difficult implosion-device route to admission to the atomic club.

Those queries led to the additional information above.

With a quarter-million U.S. and allied troops massed within striking distance of Saddam Hussein, it seems urgent to task our intelligence resources with this mission: How soon will Iraq be able to detonate a "dirty" nuclear device to decimate our forces?

That is the clear and present danger the world faces, and that is the information to determine the timing of the strike to prevent nuclear equalization.

Our old-book generals who want to wait until next year until we outnumber Iraqis on the ground are allowing Hussein the time to develop weaponry to inflict horrendous casualties.

How comfortably our editorialists say "let the sanctions work" for a year or two, as if the scientists at Al Qaqaa were not feverishly racing to complete their work.

How complacent some diplomats are that Hussein can be induced to give up the weapon that would give him effective control of the world.

We are not confronting this aggressor to save the oil flow, or to protect allies, or to reassert our leadership, or even primarily to establish the noble principle of collective security that would have averted World War II.

We are dealing here with our own survival.

As soon as Iraq gets the bomb and the missile, millions of American lives are in peril. Those are the stakes. And for all we know, it may be two minutes to midnight.

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