Saddam’s Bombmaker

“Saddam’s Bombmaker; the Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq’s Secret Weapon” by Khidhir Hamza (Simon and Schuster, 2000)

Followers of the coverage of the case for the invasion of Iraq may have seen the name of Khidhir Hamza quoted in support of putting an end to Saddam Hussein’s campaign to create weapons of mass destruction. Hamza was part of that project. In the 1980s and early 1990s he was a key member of the team that started to develop a nuclear weapons program under the auspices of developing nuclear power. With money, cars and houses lavished upon him by Saddam Hussein, Hamza fell deeply into a trap of dependence. The more significant he was, the more he knew, the more dangerous he would be in exile, a target for Saddam’s assassins. However, in August 1994 he fled, leaving his wife and family behind.

This book tells the story of his escape, and gives a chilling account of the terror behind Saddam’s Iraq – a terror more random, and more open, than even Stalin himself concocted. The tale of his escape rivals any great story of subterfuge and fear involved in eluding secret police, adopting a new identity and traversing well-guarded national borders.

Neatly interwoven with the personal journey is the description of Saddam’s bomb-making plans, and his methods of increasing his own power at all costs. In the 1980s (when Iran was the greater nuisance to the U.S.A.), several Western powers, including the U.K., France, Germany and Italy, all aided Saddam’s efforts with material and education – an activity sharply curtailed with the Gulf War. Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein, inspired by Hitler and Stalin, but with ambitions as being the leader of the Arab world to replace Egypt’s Nasser, was ordering the torture and execution of real and perceived enemies, even (unlike the two European dictators) himself murdering some poor wretches who had the temerity to question him. Terror works most effectively when it is truly random, and Hamza reports the party meeting where Saddam read out a list of supposed spies and traitors, who were led out to be shot. This grim scene was shown on the recent Discovery Channel program “The Real Saddam.”

Since the publication of this book, some questions have been asked about Hamza’s credentials. It appears he was not quite as high up the ladder as he claimed. His forecasts about the timetable for Saddam’s ability to launch a nuclear bomb have been erratic. His uninhibited enthusiasm for the free air of the United States (where he had attended MIT and Florida State) has been lately replaced by a declared preference for the Middle East. This reviewer found the account of his escape a little suspect. Why would Saddam, who knew when Hamza was in Libya, restrain from assassinating him until after he made his first move to Western intelligence? His family made a later surprisingly uninhibited, but successful, escape attempt to join him. But no one doubts the essential truth of the book in describing the nature of Saddam’s despotism and ambitions.

What are the lessons from this? That “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” is a dubious strategy in a time of rapid turmoil. That Saddam – who despised Iran and the mullahs, scorned the PLO and the Soviets, and poisoned the Kurds – made initial strides to build a modern, more secular state, but, once the terror started, could survive only via more terror. That he is isolated and fearful in his own country, and will probably not refrain from using the weapons at his disposal. Hamza’s perspective is clear: the last sentence of the book runs: “Saddam must be kept in a box, or, better still, removed.”

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