IRAQ'S nuclear "surprise" is one of the best-known secrets the world has ever chosen to ignore.
We should shake our heads sadly when officials such as Hans Blix, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), claim ignorance of Saddam Hussein's nuclear intentions, he did only months ago.
The facts suggest a very different record of events.
Information about the Iraqi bomb has been available for nearly 15 years. More than 450 Western companies helped build Hussein's nuclear machine, sending thousands of technicians into Iraqi weapons facilities on lucrative commercial contracts.
But neither the United States, its Western allies nor the atomic energy agency have wanted to hear the truth about Iraq, let alone take the steps to do something about it.
Here are just some of the flash points that were ignored:
In September 1975 Hussein called an agreement he had just signed with France to purchase a plutonium-breeder reactor "the first concrete step toward the production of the Arab atomic weapon." Neither France nor the United States reacted to the interview, published in a Beirut newsweekly.
In 1979 the reactor cores for the French bomb plant were sabotaged near the port of Toulon, probably by agents from Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. France rebuilt the reactor cores nevertheless.
In the spring of 1981, just as the Osirak plant was set to begin operations, an IAEA inspection team sent to the atomic research center in Tuwaitha certified Iraq's compliance with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
Privately, however, some officials were worried.
One inspector, an American, Robert Richter, accused Iraq of circumventing the treaty by maintaining secret facilities at Tuwaitha for uranium enrichment. He was dismissed by the agency for his candor.
In June 1981 Israeli F-16s took out the Osirak plant in a surgical strike. The world's anger focused on Israel and conveniently neglected the cause of the raid, Iraq's atomic bomb.
Following the Israeli strike, Hussein took his nuclear program underground -- literally.
In 1982 Belgian and French construction firms began to build a series of underground air bases in Iraq specifically designed to resist a nuclear blast.
When the existence of these bases was revealed in 1985, their threat was dismissed by the Western foreign-policy establishment, which argued that Iraq was too busy with its war with Iran to develop a nuclear bomb.
Starting in 1987 the Iraqis increased efforts to procure embargoed technologies for their uranium-enrichment program.
They turned to a group of West German nuclear brokers headed by the H+H Metalform company and a former employee of MAN Technologies.
These agents merrily provided technical assistance and shipped vital materials to Iraq, often with the knowledge of the West German government.
More recent efforts occurred only months before Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, when Iraqi attempts to purchase critical nuclear equipment were thwarted by customs officials in California, Britain, West Germany and Switzerland.
And in July 1990, less than one month before the invasion of Kuwait, Consarc, a New Jersey firm, was on the verge of shipping high-temperature furnaces for use in nuclear-weapons manufacturing to Iraq, when a former Defense Department official, Stephen Bryen, got wind of the deal and alerted the government.
President Bush had to intervene to block delivery of what one expert has called a "Cadillac production line for atomic-bomb parts."
The New Jersey firm had warned the Commerce Department on at least two occasions that its furnaces had nuclear applications but was reportedly encouraged by the government to pursue the business.
It took an invasion by Iraqi shock troops to alert the West to the danger bred by this informal coalition of bankers, arms salesmen, technology brokers and government officials.
Similar dangers are brewing elsewhere in the Third World -- Iran, Syria, Algeria -- and for exactly the same reasons.
Will we be lucky enough to wake up this time before it is too late? How many more Iraqs can the world survive?
Kenneth R. Timmerman is author of "The Death Lobby: How the West Armed Iraq."