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Iraq's Nuclear Weapons Program

From Aflaq to Tammuz

Last changed 27 December 2001


Iraq has long been a path breaking nation in the Middle East. It was the first modern Arab state to achieve full independence (on 13 October 1932). It was also the first modern Arab state to suffer a coup d'etat (led by General Bakr Sidqi on 29 October 1936) which set the general course of Middle East history away from constitutional government and toward the dominance of military strongmen.

Iraq is famous for being the geographic location of the most ancient civilization on Earth - the Sumerian civilization founded 6000 years ago. But modern Iraq owes little more to this ancient people, whose entire language family and ethnic identity vanished millennia ago, than does any other nation of western civilization. Even the peoples that replaced the Sumerians - the Akkadians (Babylonians) - are gone along with the entire Eastern Semitic language group to which the belonged.

The culture, language, and identity of modern Iraq is Arab -- it is descended from the nomadic Beduin peoples of the Arabian Peninsula, and the Western Semitic language they spoke. The dominance of the Arab peoples in the Middle East is due directly to Muhammad - the Prophet of Islam. In the Seventh Century AD the Arabs united under the inspiration of Muhammad's leadership and teachings, and in the space of thirty years conquered vast stretches of the Middle East, permanently establishing Arabic culture as the dominant cultural force in the region. Despite the essential role of Islam in Arabizing the Middle East, Arab identity is not tied to Islam. There are millions of Arab Christians, who carry on a tradition from pre-Islamic times.

The Emergence of Hussein

Remarkably, Saddam Hussein as been playing a key role in Iraqi history for most of the state's 70 year existence.

Iraq became independent as a monarchy. Its ruling family - the Hashemites - were established in this position by the British in 1921. Despite considerable turbulence, beset by coups and revolts of various sorts, the monarchy persisted until 14 July 1958. On that day a swift and bloody predawn coup was executed by officers of the Nineteenth Brigade under the leadership of Brigadier Abd al Karim Qasim and Colonel Abd as Salaam Arif. King Faisal II, the principal ministers of government, and much of the royal family were killed.

The July 14 Revolution, as it is known, was a turning point in Iraqi history. The social order promoted by the British, based on traditional rural society and civilian monarchal rule, was destroyed and replaced by the preeminence of urban society, modernization, and military rule.

It was not long before Qasim found himself the target of plotters. In 1959 an Army officer, then only 22 years old, failed in an attempted assassination plot. His name was Saddam Hussein (the common spelling, academia generally prefers Husayn).

In July 1961 Qasim set a fateful precedent by laying claim to the newly independent state of Kuwait. Qasim finally fell in a coup on 9 February 1963 in which he was killed.

The forces that overthrew Qasim were more than simply a group of disgruntled officers. The coup was organized and inspired by a political movement - the Baath Party. The Baath movement was founded in 1943 by a Christian Arab Syrian-Lebanese student named Michel Aflaq. Aflaq was inspired by western socialist thought. In the colonial context the appealing elements were more about nationalism than economic doctrine, and the Baath Party (formally the Baath Arab Socialist Party) he founded in 1946 championed Arab unity and opposition to colonial powers (Baath is Arabic for "resurrection" or "renaissance"). The philosophy of Arab nationalism, called pan-Arabism, had vast appeal in the post-colonial period. The Baath Party spread from Lebanon to Syria and Iraq. Pan-Arabism also manifested itself as "Nasserism" in Egypt, and led to numerous proposals and some actual attempts to unify the separate Arab states left behind by the colonial powers (notably the 1958-61 formation of the United Arab Republic from Syria and Egypt).

Baathist regimes came to power in both Syria and Iraq in February-March 1963, a moment a truth for Pan-Arabism when Baathist principles were put to the test. But instead of representing the triumph of Pan-Arabism, this double ascendancy of the Baathists was the death knell of Pan-Arabism. The interests of national leaders, and the appeal of nationalism based on state rather than ethnic identity, won out and Aflaq's attempts at fostering unification failed. In 1966 he was thrown out of the Baath party in Syria and forced into exile. He died in exile in Iraq in 1989. Although Libya continued pan-Arab unification attempts in the 70s and 80s, the failure of the Baath in Syria and Iraq to overcome state-based nationalism marked the end of pan-Arabism as a real force in the Arab world. Henceforth, the only "unification" projects pursued by Iraq would be attempted by military conquest.

Iraqi history after 1963 is largely the story of the rise and dominance of one man - Saddam Hussein.

Hussein was born in Auja, near the city of Tikrit, 200 km north of Baghdad, in 1937. He entered Baathist politics early, joining the party in 1956, and (as noted above) taking an early role in political violence. The assassination attempt against Qasim was Hussein's second assignment as assassin, previously he had killed his brother-in-law who was a communist.

The Baathists who staged the 1963 coup numbered about 300 and like Hussein were mostly military men. A substantial portion of them were also, like Hussein, from the area around Tikrit. These Tikritis formed a clique that would gain control over Iraq and, with Hussein at their head, rule the country for more then a quarter century. It is a supreme irony that a group founded on the vision of Pan-Arabism would end up serving the extremely narrow interests of tiny group of clans from a single town.

Between 1963 and 1968, the Baathists lost influence and the government was dominated by two strong generals, the Arif brothers. In June of 1968 two coups took place. The first replaced Major General Abd ar Rahman Arif by officers representing the Arab Revolutionary Movement, supported by the Baathists. This placed the Baathists within striking distance, and just two weeks later on 30 July they moved. The Baath's Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), headed by Tikriti Ahmad Hasan al Bakr, took control of Iraq. Three of the five members of the RCC were Tikritis, and a fourth - Saddam Hussein (who was also a relative of Bakr) - took charge of internal security. The first of many bloody purges instigated by Hussein took place several weeks later.

During the next several years the Tikritis, and Saddam Hussein in particular, increasingly monopolized power within the government. By 1969 Hussein and Bakr together dominated Iraq, with Bakr being the public figurehead, but Hussein being the "power behind the throne".

The Baath government, with Saddam Hussein acting as its effective leader even years before he formally took charge in a reign of terror, had (and has) striking similarities to the rule of Stalin in the Soviet Union. Like Stalin, Hussein demands total and unquestioned submission to his will and enforces it with the lavish use of violence of all kinds, both systematic and capricious. Like the Communist Party of the Soviet Union under Stalin, the Baath Party of Iraq is the instrument of Hussein's personal power, with ultimate authority for all aspects of Iraqi society resting in the hands of party members. Like the CPSU, slavish devotion to the maximum leader is the only significant qualification for membership in the Baath and thus at the top levels Iraq is ruled by party functionaries who generally possess scant competence by normal measures. Also, like the Soviet Union, there is an elaborate system of material reward for those who serve and please the regime.

The Nuclear Weapon Program Starts

Iraq's modest civilian nuclear program dates all the way back to the "Atoms for Peace" program in 1956, when the US led the international community in establishing nuclear research programs in nations around the world. The library of declassified documents from the Manhattan Project bestowed on Iraq in 1956 proved useful 15 years later in giving Iraq's nascent nuclear weapons program a good start. In 1962 construction began on Iraq's first research reactor - the 2 megawatt IRT-5000 supplied the Soviet Union. It went critical in 1967, and was later upgraded to 5 MW in 1978 ([Barnaby 1993; pg. 87], International Nuclear Safety Center).

In 1968 Iraq signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), ratifying it in 1969. This formally committed Iraq to forswearing nuclear weapons. But in 1971 a secret plan was initiated to breach the treaty. At that time the program was run by the Iraq Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC), a small department within the Ministry of Higher Education. The chairman of the physics department of the Nuclear Research Center, located at the Atomic Energy (or AE) facility at al-Tuwaitha, 17 km south of Baghdad, was Khidir Hamza.

Khidir Hamza
Khidir Hamza

Hamza reports that in late 1971 he was approached by the two men in charge of the IAEC, the secretary-general of AE Dr. Moyesser Al-Mallah and the newly appointed director of the Nuclear Research Center Husham Sharif, both Baath party members. Al-Mallah and Sharif requested that Hamza develop a plan for acquiring nuclear weapons, one that used an ambitious and carefully designed civilian nuclear program to obtain the technologies, skills, and infrastructure required to successfully create a nuclear arsenal. They pointed out that this plan would secure greatly increased funding for the nuclear program from the Vice President and Vice-Chairman of the Revolution Command Council (RCC), Saddam Hussein. Up to this time Iraq's nuclear program had been small and poorly funded, much of which came from international aid programs.

It is unknown what prompted the two Baathists to approach Hamza - whether they were acting at the direction of Hussein, or whether they were simply trying to boost their own positions. Hamza has said that he initially thought of this plan as a ruse to boost the civilian nuclear program [Hamza 1998]. This is an interesting variation on the precedents established by India and South Africa, in which at various points the nations claimed peaceful civilian aims for their weapon programs. One key difference in this case was that here the avowed (though secret) objective was from the beginning to obtain nuclear weapons; another is that Iraq is the only state to pursue nuclear weapons while officially committing to forswear them. Hamza's position that he was not personally interested in this objective can perhaps be compared to that of Werner von Baun, who to pursue an interest in civilian space exploration presided over vast weapons programs, for Germany during World War II, and then the development of ICBMs to deliver nuclear weapons for the US.

In his later book-length account Hamza concedes that his motivations were mixed, that ambition played its part, and that the prospect of actually designing and testing a nuclear explosive excited him. That indeed he was not averse to succeeding in carrying out his plan [Hamza and Stein 2000; pg. 65-68].

In any event after the 50 page plan was reviewed by a group affiliated with the Revolutionary Council it was approved in 1972. Final approval came from Hussein, not Bakr, and Hussein directed and controlled the program from that point on [Hamza 1998]. Iraq's nuclear program was now an experiment in how far a nation could proceed with the acquisition of nuclear weapons under cover of a civilian nuclear program, and in violation of its sworn adherence to international treaty, without being called to account for this behavior.

The core of Hamza's plan was to acquire a foreign reactor to use for producing plutonium ([Hamza and Stein 2000; pg. 69-70], [Hamza and Cirincione 2000]). Since Iraq was a signatory to the NPT, this reactor would be subject to biannual International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections, until such time that it decided to openly abrogate its adherence.

Saddam Hussein shrewdly decided that Iraq must have one of its own people in the IAEA to find out how it operated, what it knew, and to influence its decisions. In September 1973 Al-Mallah, Hamza, and minister of higher education Hisham al-Shawi, went to Vienna to lobby for an Iraqi to have a seat on the IAEA board of governors. They were successful, with al-Shawi taking the seat. To further penetrate the IAEA's operations, a special intelligence office was created at the Iraqi embassy in Vienna. The position of "scientific attaché" was created and filled by Suroor Mahmoud Mirza, a brother of Saddam's senior bodyguard. Intimate access to inside knowledge of IAEA operations proved invaluable in circumventing IAEA's detection of Iraqi cheating. Al-Shawi was even successful in getting an Iraqi nuclear physicist - Abdul-Wahid al-Saji - appointed an IAEA inspector.

Hussein soon tightened his control over the program further. He transferred the Iraq Atomic Energy Commission to the RCC and appointed himself its chair, an appointment that was never disclosed to the IAEA. Al-Mallah and Sharif were removed. Hussein's new chief deputy for maintaining Baath control became Khalid Ibrahim Saeed.

Jafar Dhia Jafar
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Jafar Dhia Jafar

By late 1974 about 200 people were on staff at AE. In April 1975 the talented experimental nuclear physicist Jafar Dhia Jafar returned to Baghdad from several years abroad spent working at such places as the British nuclear research center at Harwell and CERN, the European nuclear physics laboratory in Geneva Switzerland. Jafar quickly took a leading role in the nuclear weapon program. In addition to being brilliant Jafar was well connected -- he was very rich and hailed from the upper crust of Iraqi society, his father having been a cabinet minister under the last monarch. Sometime during the period from 1976 to 1978 Jafar initiated Iraq's first uranium enrichment project, employing the electromagnetic isotope separation (EMIS) (aka "calutron") technology used to make the Hiroshima bomb during WWII [Burrows and Windrem 1994].

By 1979 Jafar had become Vice Chairman of the Iraq Atomic Energy Commission. The principal scientists on the program were now Jafar, Hamza - responsible for the reactor program, and internationally know radiochemist Husayn al-Shahristani who headed the plutonium separation program. Jafar and al-Shahristani had both established reputations abroad by the time they got involved in the nuclear weapons program, but Hamza had been forced to return to Iraq by the government soon after receiving his Ph.D. and remained essentially unknown outside Iraq. Despite his role as the founder of the nuclear weapon program, his eventual position as head of nuclear bomb development, and the political difficulties Jafar would find himself in, Hamza remained in Jafar's shadow throughout his tenure in the Iraqi program. In their 1994 book Burrows and Windrem do not even mention Hamza's name.

Iraq set about trying to secure a large reactor suitable for substantial plutonium production in 1974. Iraq initially approached France about obtaining a 500 megawatt gas cooled power reactor [Evron 1994; pg. 26]. This type of reactor, using graphite as moderator and natural uranium as fuel, was obsolete as a power source by this time but had served as the backbone of the British and French nuclear weapon programs. A reactor of this size is comparable to the original plutonium production reactors built for the Manhattan Project and would produce at least 125 kg of plutonium a year in normal operation. Natural uranium reactors of all types are intrinsically well suited for weapons plutonium production due to the abundant U-238 for breeding, the low burn-up of the fuel, and the ability to procure fuel from numerous sources, including domestic ones. The tightening of international controls on reactor exports after the 1974 Indian nuclear test shut off this option. France turned down the request stating that reactors of that type were no longer built. Iraq also approached Canada about a heavy water moderated/natural uranium Candu reactor - the type used by India for its weapon program [Albright et al 1997; pg. 343]. Iraq then opted for two research reactors from France that ran on highly enriched uranium. One of these was a large materials test reactor (MTR) - a type of high power experimental reactor used for intense irradiation of target materials. This reactor had a nominal operating power of 40-megawatt (thermal), but was actually capable of continuous operation at power levels up to 70 MW. This was an extremely inappropriate choice for a nation just beginning a peaceful nuclear program. The 70 MW power of the MTR made it one of the largest of this type in the world. An MTR is typically only needed by nations with advanced power reactor programs that need to study how reactor materials behave under intense and prolonged irradiation, or require large amounts of special isotopes. Of course this was exactly Iraq's plan - to use it for irradiating a blanket of unsafeguarded uranium to produce the special isotope Pu-239.

For his part, Saddam Hussein did not pussy-foot around about his intentions. Just before flying to France to close the Osirak deal in September 1975, he gave an interview to a leading Arabic language newsmagazine from Beirut in which he declared that his country was engaged in "the first Arab attempt at nuclear arming" [Burrows and Windrem 1994; pg. 37]. Further he argued that Iraq should be helped to develop nuclear weapons to balance the Israeli arsenal [Hamza and Stein 2000; pg. 105].

Hamza travelled to France to open negotiations on an agreement for the MTR in June 1974. This reactor was a derivative of the French Osiris reactor which was a pool-type reactor fueled by 93% enriched - that is, weapon grade - uranium. Since the French were selling the reactor to Iraq, they dubbed this export model the "Osirak" reactor (in French orthography, Os + Irak, sometimes given as "Osiraq" using English spelling), the name under which it is commonly known. The Iraqis didn't call the reactor "Osirak" however, the proper name for it was "Tammuz-1", named after the month of the Islamic calendar when the Baath came to power in 1968. Along with Tammuz-1 Iraq also contracted for a second lower power reactor called Tammuz-2 (or Isis to the French).

The Iraqis had several objectives in obtaining Tammuz-1/Osirak (in keeping with current practice I will call it Osirak henceforth). The principal one was to produce plutonium of course, hopefully enough for one or more bombs, but even if not, to obtain a complete suite of modern reactor technology for study and copying, to provide experience in high-flux reactor operation, and in plutonium production, refining and manufacturing. Also along with its companion the 800 KW (thermal) Tammuz-2 (and a smaller amount of HEU in the Russian supplied IRT-5000 reactor), it immediately placed enough weapon-grade uranium in Iraq's hands for two bombs.

The agreement for the reactors was finally concluded in 1976. France began to have second thoughts about the wisdom of putting this much HEU in Iraqi hands, or in providing such an efficient irradiation facility. France tried to amend the contract and provide a model using a lower enrichment fuel, called "caramel" fuel with an 8% enrichment. Iraq insisted on the HEU fueled version [Evron 1994; pg. 26]. Significantly, Iraq had never expressed interest in commercial light water power reactors - a type with limited proliferation potential. When highly proliferating power reactors appeared unobtainable the notion of obtaining any sort of power reactor was dropped entirely. As Vandenbroucke put it in 1984: "This apparent willingness to settle for any kind of reactor, provided it was of the more proliferating type, followed by Iraq's refusal to switch to non-weapons-grade fuel, points toward a major Iraqi desire to obtain bomb-grade material." [Vandenbroucke 1984]. Some commentators argued at the time that the fact that Osirak was not built underground, but was covered by a vulnerable dome indicated the peaceful intent of the reactor. This neglected the fact that the Dimona reactor in Israel was built in exactly the same way, and that Iraq had actually requested an underground facility, but had been turned down by the French. The infrastructure was built during 1976-1979, and in 1979 construction of the reactor itself commenced.

In 1979 Iraq contracted with the Italian company SNIA-Techint for pilot plutonium separation and handling facility, and a uranium refining and fuel-manufacturing plant. These facilities were not subject to IAEA safeguards. Iraq also obtained large amounts of unsafeguarded uranium - 100 tons of natural uranium from Portugal, and additional large shipments from Brazil and Nigeria (in 1991 it declared a stockpile of 400 tonnes of uranium).Iraq also discussed a production scale plutonium plant with Italy [Evron 1994; pg. 27]. Most revealing, in 1980 Iraq attempted to obtain 11 tonnes of depleted uranium metal from the West German company NUKEM - already fabricated into irradiation pins sized for the Osirak reactor [Barnaby 1993; pg. 91]. This is one full loading of target material and would produce 11 kg of plutonium (enough for up to 2 bombs) after 150 days of irradiation.

During the seventies the AE nuclear weapons program spent some $750 million, $300 million of it for the French reactor, and $200 million on the fuel plant and plutonium separation facility. It built up a staff of 500 engineers and technicians [Hamza and Cirincione 2000]. But AE wasn't Iraq's only venture in nuclear weapons research. A program in uranium enrichment using laser isotope separation (LIS) was started in the late 70s. This effort was based at the new Al-Hazen Ibn Al Hayatham Center for Research headed by Serwan al-Satidah, and was conducted in complete isolation and secrecy from AE. LIS was a new area of technology which at that time had yet to be demonstrated successfully even by the US. Not surprisingly, given its lack of a significant track record in any area of physical research, Iraq produced no apparent results [Hamza and Stein 2000; pg. 95-98]. The LIS program was sponsored within the Baath by Humam al-Ghafour, who replaced Saddam Hussein as the Chairman of the IAEC in the late 70s. Al-Ghafour remained the chief executive of the Iraqi nuclear program from then on, at least into the mid-90s.

Hussein Takes Over

In June 1979 Hussein moved in consolidate the power that had accumulated in his hands over the years. The increasingly unwell Bakr was forced to resign all his positions, and Hussein took over as president of the republic, secretary general of the Baath Party, chairman of the RCC, and commander in chief of the armed forces. Two months later, Hussein held his own Great Purge. A large meeting of the Baath Party was called, with Hussein presiding. Armed guards lined the auditorium and prevented the attendees from leaving. Lists of names were produced and read off. Those named were taken outside as the meeting continued and promptly executed outside, with other party members being encourage or forced to act as executioners. Some who acted as executioners were themselves named, and executed in turn. Much of these proceedings were filmed, and videotapes of the massacre eventually reached the west. Over 200 were executed at this meeting. In all, some 500 members of the Baath Party are believed to have been executed by 1 August, including one-third of the RCC, 30 generals, and 7 scientists and engineers.

In early 1979 an Iraqi engineer visiting CERN introduced himself as having been sent by Jafar and showed unusual interest in a high performance magnet system (the NA10) used to separate sub-atomic particles. The technology was quite similar to, but more advanced than, the WWII era EMIS system. The level of knowledge exhibited, and the fact that the engineer was knowledgeable about this uniquely suitable magnet system indicates that serious work had been underway for some time. This inquiry into specialized EMIS technology is the first known indication to the outside world of Iraq's efforts to use calutrons for producing enriched uranium [Gsponer and Hurni 1995; pg. 21]. Brown Boveri, a Swiss company that was a major magnet supplier to CERN, was engaged to assist in the design of the calutron magnet in 1980 under the cover of a peaceful research project[Hamza and Stein 2000; pp. 133-134]

The head of the Indian nuclear weapons program at this time, Homi Sethna, reports that about this same time Iraq sent engineers to visit India's nuclear establishments and scientists. Iraq expressed interest in acquiring a 200 MW nuclear power plant, which would have used India's highly proliferation-prone natural uranium and heavy water technology, and with assistance in the production of uranium from domestic phosphate deposits. Sethna was very impressed with the caliber of the engineers, describing them as "top notch" and "very professional". Significantly, the engineers expressed interest in the feasibility of using power plant produced plutonium in nuclear weapons [Chengappa 2000; pg. 266]. The exact reasons these preliminary contacts with India were dropped are uncertain, but undoubtedly lie in the dramatic changes to Iraq's political and military situation in 1980 and to its nuclear program in 1981.

It is more than likely that hints like these about Iraq's true plans and intentions reached Israeli ears.

The political environment in and surrounding Iraq deteriorated through 1979 and 1980, in large part due to the machinations of Saddam Hussein. The corrupt, repressive, and ineffectual regime of the Shah of Iran was rapidly disentegrating, with secular and religious groups of various stripes jockeying for position. In October 1978 the Iranian Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who had been in exile in Iraq for 14 years, was sent abroad by Hussein - a miscalculation comparable to Germany arranging for Lenin's return to Russia in 1917. With Khomeini now able to freely communicate with opposition forces, he quickly became the focus around which opposition to the Shah coalesced, giving fundamentalist religious forces an enormous boost. A huge mass demonstration in Teheran endorsed Khomeini as the alternative to the Shah on 9 December. On 1 February 1979 Khomeini returned in triumph to Teheran and set up an opposition government. Eight days later the Iranian military splintered with pro-Shah and pro-Khomeini factions firing on each other. On 31 March Iran became an Islamic republic.

This turn of events disturbed Hussein, who as a Sunni Arab, was deeply suspicious of the loyalties of the numerous Shiite muslims in Iraq, many of Iranian ethnic origin. Persecution of Shiites in Iraq soon followed.

The Iraqi nuclear program had become progressively regimented and subject to progressively stricter and more intrusive security starting in late 1974. Over time this began to have an effect on morale, and the ability to recruit and retain talented staff. But even more ominous developments shook the nuclear program after Hussein took over as President. On 18 September 1979 Hussein held a called a surprise meeting at al-Tuwaitha with the heads of the nuclear program - Jafar and al-Shahristani (Hamza was abroad at the time) and demanded a report on the plutonium program - when delivery for a bomb was expected. This was still at least a year and a half before Osirak would go critical, and successful breeding and separation of plutonium could not occur until well after that - possibly years if technical issues had to be resolved. Al-Shahristani was in charge of the plutonium separation program. Al-Shahristani also had a history for being indiscreet in his political views, and was also a Shiite of Iranian heritage. Hussein was not satisfied with his answers and had him arrested, al-Shahristani's family was taken into custody too. Jafar tried to intervene on his behalf a month later, but he too was arrested. Both al-Shahristani and Jafar were initially imprisoned at the headquarters of Hussein's secret police, the Mukhabarat, in the Mansour district of Baghdad. Both men were beaten and subjected to torture, al-Shahristani severely and repeatedly. Al-Shahristani was sentenced to life in prison under unknown charges and sent to the feared Abu Ghraib facility. He spent 11 years there before his escape during the Gulf War. Jafar was kept in prison for nearly two years ([Hamza and Stein 2000; pp. 115-117; 126; 137], [Burrows and Windrem 1994; pg. 38]).

Hussein put the first installment of his aggressive designs into practice in September 1980. On 17 September he annulled a border agreement with Iran and claimed the whole Shatt el-Arab waterway that connects Iraq with the Persian Gulf. Five days later Iraq invaded Iran, beginning the Iran-Iraq War. Hussein probably counted on the upheaval of the Iranian Revolution to cripple Iran's ability to resist. But the collapse of the Shah's high-tech Western-trained forces was more than replaced by the new-found unity and exceptional morale of Islamic Iran, and the mobilization of Iran's much larger population. The initial rapid gains from the surprise attack quickly bogged down into static warfare reminiscent of WWI. The war would last eight years and cost hundreds of thousands of lives, perhaps as many as a million deaths combined.

The proliferation potential of Osirak has long been the subject of considerable controversy. Osirak and its companion reactor had cores containing more than enough weapon-grade uranium for a bomb, but Osirak consumed some 70 grams a day in operation and needed to be replaced every few months. Thus Iraq never held more than a single loading of fresh HEU at a time for each reactor, and required the cooperation of France to obtain replacements. Osirak was placed under IAEA inspection, and France was also on the site for support (contracted through 1989), so the conventional wisdom of the arms control community has been that this reactor was not a proliferation threat. Further, the NPT is an implicit deal with non-nuclear nations - they gain access to nuclear technology in exchange for agreeing to not acquire weapons and to inspections. Thus since Iraq was an NPT signatory, and agreed to inspections, it was entitled to a reactor if it wanted one, even if there was no plausible need for it.

On the other hand, Iraq acquired the reactor in order to cheat (although this only became publicly and conclusively known in the 90s). In actual fact Iraq had no peaceful need or purpose for this reactor, something that was evident to any serious observer even at the time. It already had one experimental reactor, and was acquiring a second with Tammuz-2. It was training an enormous cadre of nuclear technicians (400 were sent abroad for training), yet had no experimental program. The massive construction of buildings at al-Tuwaitha without any declared purpose and off-limits to outsiders indicated activities unconnected with legitimate research. Unlike the energy-poor nation of India, oil-rich Iraq did not have the argument that it needed to develop indigenous nuclear power for domestic needs.

An upper limit of the plutonium production capacity for Osirak can be set at 25 kg, which would require continuous operation at maximum power. A more useful upper limit - which includes downtime for refueling, maintenance, and blanket replacement - might be 16 kg (3 or 4 bombs a year) with the reactor operating at full power 2/3 of the time. The actual production rate the Iraqis could have achieved is unknown and would have been constrained by the operational limits required by their program of deception.

It was widely argued at the time that IAEA inspections and the presence of French technicians would make significant cheating all but impossible. Such assessments seem to have been based on severe misunderstandings of the actual nature of the IAEA, and its authority to perform inspections (see for example [Fainberg 1981]). Or in the case of the IAEA itself, the agency took the bureaucratic stance that since its inspections followed its own (internally drafted) regulations, no one could possibly find fault with them [Eklund 1981].

Two fundamental flaws crippled the IAEA's ability to adequately supervise states seeking to divert nuclear technology to illegal use. First, the IAEA has the conflicting objectives of promoting nuclear technology, and in regulating it. This conflict existed in the old US AEC, with respect to civilian nuclear power, and the persistent problems it created led to its being broken up with the creation of a separate inspection agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. This conflict recently showed up again in the US nuclear weapons program, leading to a separate inspection agency for this also. Second, the IAEA and its inspectors relies on the consent and cooperation of the nation being inspected, and really have no stick to use if consent is withheld. The IAEA finds itself constantly in the position of having to conduct itself in such a way as to please the nation being inspected. For example, an inspector who gets a reputation for being "too aggressive" will find nations refusing to grant him or her a visa, and the inspector may then be out of a job. In the late 90s the creation of the New Model Protocol redressed some of these deficiencies, but the adoption of this protocol is purely at the discretion of the state being inspected.

One IAEA inspector, Roger Richter, resigned in 1981 and provided prescient assessments of the shortcomings of the inspection system, testifying before the US Congress. In [Richter 1981] he provides a detailed description of precisely how the Iraqis would have been able to operate Osirak for plutonium production, while remaining formally compliant with the IAEA's protocols. The fundamental limits are that the IAEA would make only 3 inspections annually which were scheduled months in advance and that no remote monitoring was employed. The IAEA had (and has) no authority to look for clandestine operations, but only inspects declared facilities which the host country has announced as containing material subject to safeguards. The IAEA cannot demand samples of materials being irradiated. The rotation of the uranium blanket to the processing facility could easily be conducted in a matter of days during a reactor shut-down completely unobserved. The French technicians, who were employees and guests of Iraq working at an Iraqi owned plant, would presumably be kept away during this operation on the reasonable grounds that they were not needed during a reactor shut-down. It seems doubtful that France would have had the legal right, or the political will, to abrogate the contract for fuel supply if Iraq was in formal compliance with the IAEA.

Thus few practical limitations actually existed on the use of this reactor for producing plutonium, if Iraq decided to aggressively manipulate the inspection process (as it later did in the 1990s with UNSCOM). Even if forced to operate at only a fraction of the above estimate for maximum output, production of a bomb's worth or more of material annually would have remained possible. And whenever Iraq chose to go public with its weapons program, it would have been able to seize more than two bomb's worth of HEU as a bonus. And Iraq could certainly have undertaken to supplement or replace Osirak by building its own reactors using natural uranium/graphite technology to capitalize on an established plutonium-based weapons infrastructure. During the 1980s the Iraqis had a program (Project 182) in place to do exactly that.

Further, experience over the years has shown the serious limits of IAEA inspections in the face of clandestine operations (see especially [Hamza 1998]). Subsequent experience with Iraq's massive acquisition of dual-use and proscribed materials for its weapons program during the entire decade of the 80s, while the west took no notice, and Iraq's successful deception of even the unprecedented UNSCOM inspections after the Gulf War - revealed only after the defections of Gen. Hussein Kamel al-Majid and Dr. Khidir Hamza - does not inspire a great deal of confidence. Iraq has shown itself capable of amazing persistence and ingenuity in concealment and deception, and international inspectors including the IAEA have proven remarkably complacent and trusting (see the accounts of [Hamza and Stein 2000] and [Gsponer and Hurni 1995]). The IAEA has shown itself to be culturally unwilling to declare signatories in violation without smoking guns in plain sight (if then).

Although the IAEA was unaware of Iraq's intentions, Israel was not. Israel had plenty of reason for being suspicious of the capabilities Iraq was acquiring -- having used a French reactor to go nuclear itself, and being in a continuing formal state of war declared on it by the Arab states, including Iraq. But Israel also had superb intelligence resources focused on the Middle East, and Israel has indicated that it had specific knowledge of Iraqi plans.

For a contemporary Israeli view on the threat presented by Osirak see [Ne'eman 1981]. This article basically lays out the case for attacking Osirak, but was written and submitted for publication to the The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists four months before the attack by Yuval Ne'eman, a physicist intimately involved in the Israeli nuclear program.

Osirak Reactor Core Storage Building
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Osirak Core Storage Building near Toulon

Israel's first attempt to disrupt Iraq's plans occurred at 3 am on 6 April 1979. The two reactor cores lay in storage at a plant at the French firm of Constructions Navales et Industrielles de la Méditerranée in La Seyne-Sur-Mer near Toulon awaiting shipment to Iraq. A Mossad operation known as Operation Sphinx smuggled in seven operatives who placed five explosive charges on the cores and detonated them, damaging both cores and setting back Iraq's program by at least half a year ([Ostrovsky and Hoy 1990; pp. 19-20], [Raviv and Melman 1990; pg. 251]). The most severe damage to the cores were repaired, but x-rays revealed hairline fractures throughout the core of Osirak that could not be fixed without completely rebuilding it, a process that would take two years. The high flux of an MTR places severe demands on the core integrity, and such fractures would shorten its service life, perhaps severely. Rather than incur additional delay, Iraq decided to accept the core as is [Hamza and Stein 2000].

Which led to Israel's second fateful attack on Osirak. But after the sabotage of the reactor core, Israel's next target was a person, not an object.

Mossad kept a team operating in France to continue is assault on the Iraqi project after the bombing at Toulon. Yehia al-Meshad was a respected Egyptian nuclear engineer hired by Iraq to supervise the reactor deal. The increasing oppression in Iraq continued the deterioration of morale in the nuclear program, creating serious problems in staffing it (especially since Hussein had imprisoned and brutalized two-thirds of the program's senior leadership). Al-Meshad was brought in to make up the deficiency in senior people. Mossad made an attempt to recruit al-Meshad (just as it had done earlier with the unwitting Iraqi engineer Butrus Eben Halim) to obtain information on the program. But al-Meshad had flatly rejected the approach. Al-Meshad had a significant role, but he was not a key figure in the Iraqi program. It is not clear why Mossad decided to execute him. Perhaps partly it was because they could get to him - he was the most senior accessible target, and they had invested considerable effort in gaining access to him. Also they may have wanted to conceal their recruitment attempt. In any case al-Meshad was seeing a French prostitute, Marie-Claude Magalle, who Israel had been using as an unsuspecting informant. She apparently facilitated access to al-Meshad's room, and on 13 June 1980 al-Meshad was stabbed to death in his room. Magalle went to the police and told them what she knew about the murder. On 12 July 1980 she was killed by a hit-and-run driver [Ostrovsky and Hoy 1990; pp. 22-24].

Throughout the rest of 1980 a deadly harassment campaign continued against the Iraqi program. On 7 August 1980 the office of SNIA-Techint, the Italian firm that supplied plutonium reprocessing technology to the Iraqis, was bombed [Gsponer and Hurni 1995; pg. 21]. Two other Iraqi nuclear engineers also perished in suspicious circumstances. An electrical engineer named Salman Rashid who was working on the EMIS project with Jafar suddenly became very ill while on a two-month trip to Geneva to work with Brown Boveri. He died after ten days of the mysterious ailment. Six months after than another engineer, Abdul-Rahman Abdul Rasool, died of poisoning at a French banquet [Hamza and Stein 2000; pp. 133-134].

The Death of Tammuz-1

Tammuz-1 was named after a month in the Islamic calendar, but the name Tammuz far predates Islam. It originated as the name of the Sumerian agricultural god Dumuzi, whose cult lasted for 4000 years. The central ritual of this cult was the celebration/mourning of the death of Dumuzi (or Tammuz to the Canaanites), whose passing ensured the continuation of life on earth.

Osirak Reactor Building
Osirak Building after the Attack

At 6:35 p.m. local time on 7 June 1981 eight Israeli F-16 Falcons appeared out of the sunset approaching al-Tuwaitha. In 80 seconds 13 bombs blew a hole in the concrete dome of Tammuz-1 and exploded inside, completely demolishing the reactor core, and the reactor building down to its foundations. The attack was carried out before the reactor had gone critical so no radiation was released. It was still some time before the reactor would have begun operation - the enriched uranium fuel had not been loaded in the reactor, and was unharmed by the attack.

Operation Babylon - the Israeli attack on Tammuz-1 was carried out by eight F-16s and six F-15 Eagles to provide air cover. This was the longest range attack in Israeli Air Force history, 1100 km, at the extreme limit of combat range of the F-16 fighter-bombers. Mid-air refueling could not be carried out for the return leg of the mission, since they might be pursued by hostile fighter, so the F-16s had to be "clean" (i.e. in a minimum drag configuration). At the time of the attack it was widely reported that laser guided bombs had been used, given the precision of the bombing: one bomb blew a hole in the reactor containment vessel, the other bombs were lobbed through the hole, only one bomb fell elsewhere (this was repeated for example in [Ostrovsky and Hoy 1990]). In fact laser guided bombs were not used, the drag produced by the laser designator pods was too much. Instead it was simply carried out by precision visual bombing.

The attack was carried out at sunset. There were several advantages to this timing. The attack came out of the setting sun, minimizing the opportunity for Iraqi air defenses at the site to detect them visually. The target easy to spot for visual attack with the near-horizontal sunlight illuminating the light colored dome for the approaching F-16s. But the principal reason that Israel has given for the time of day for the attack timing was that if any aircraft were lost it would permit the Israelis to conduct search-and-rescue missions under the cover of darkness. Also Israel has emphasized that it planned the attack to minimize casualties - attacking the reactor before it began operation and became radioactive, and when its civilian operators were expected to be absent.

Hamza provides a very useful Iraqi view of the attack. One interesting revelation he offers is that the Iraqi missile battery was shut down at the time. The crew had the habit of taking dinner and leaving their post at 6 p.m., shutting off the missile radar. The Israeli attack was timed such that the aircraft came into range of the radar several minutes after it had been shut-off. This clearly indicates that Israel had intelligence about the behavior of the missile crew, and that this was a critical factor in planning the attack.

According to Hamza the French appear to have had foreknowledge of the attack and deliberately vacated the plant. The French had offices adjacent to the reactor but chose to hold a meeting with mandatory attendance at their residential village away from the site at 5 p.m. that day. One of the technicians had refused to attend, and the other Frenchmen were so insistent that a scuffle ensued. Nonetheless, he stayed behind and died in the bombing.

Hamza also suggests that the bomb that missed the reactor was not dropped in error. It hit a 30-meter tunnel connecting the reactor with a large laboratory that Hamza feels was an important target. He reports that a van was found parked next to the tunnel with a guidance transmitter inside [Hamza and Stein 2000; pp. 128-130]. Ostrovsky's earlier account provides confirmation about French involvement, and the presence of a guidance device: "... Damien Chassepied, a French technician who had been recruited by Mossad, was asked to deposit a briefcase containing a homing device inside the building. For reasons unknown, Chassepied lingered inside the building and became the only casualty" [Ostrovsky and Hoy 1990; pg. 27].

Hamza reports some additional casualties resulting from the attack. Eight or nine men were killed or seriously wounded from the Iraqi anti-aircraft guns, that had attempted to engage the aircraft as the made their low-level attacks. Hamza claims that the aircraft also strafed the facility, but this is impossible to believe since the damage from an aircraft cannon is negligible compared to the 1000 kg bombs being dropped, and anything that would have distracted the pilots from their bomb-runs, or caused them to tarry over the facility would have been avoided. The severe fuel constraint the attack operated under, and Israel's great concern about losing pilots and aircraft precluded such useless and gratuitous attacks, which would only have allowed time for Iraqi defenses to go into operation, and exhausted aircraft fuel. No Israeli account claims any such strafing occurred. The wild anti-aircraft fire probably accounts for this perception.

According to Hamza, a strange sequel to the attack was that after the attack that night, a loud argument had broken out at the French compound. The next day one of the Frenchmen was found floating in the village pool.

Despite the indications of active French collaboration with the Israeli attack, the attack on Osirak was clearly very unpopular with other circles in France. A book was published several months later by the French journalist Pierre Pean, Les Deux Bombes (Fayard, 1982), that exposed the details of the deal under which France had supplied Israel with the Dimona plutonium production reactor in 1960. Many of the same companies that had built the Dimona reactor were involved in the Osirak project.

This was actually the second air attack on the reactor. Shortly after the beginning of the war in September 1980, Iran had staged a raid with F-4 Phantoms that had done little damage.

After the destruction of Osirak, Iraq initially attempted to replace it. Why Iraq eventually dropped this effort is not entirely clear, Hamza for example simply treats this option as being out of the question after Osirak with no explanation given. Saudi Arabia offered to finance a replacement, and partial financing was actually obtained (and used on other AE programs). French President Mitterand declared an in-principle agreement to rebuild Osirak after consultations with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz in August 1981. France wanted to tighten its controls on the project however, including the addition of a reactor core surveillance system [Evron 1994; pg. 28]. Abortive secret discussions were also held with Italy to obtain a heavy water power reactor. This design called "Cirine" was not fully developed, which may account for this not coming to fruition [Barnaby 1989; pg. 90]. These projects that were discussed with prospective European partners had a variety of problems -- the additional restrictions, questions about actual availability, etc. -- but other options seem to have been ignored. Contacts with India were not renewed for example, and the possibility of secretly developing an indigenous natural uranium/graphite reactor was not vigorously pursued despite the availability of ample funds and the requisite uranium. Concerns about the international awareness of reactor programs may be part of the reason. Throughout the eighties Iraq was able to obtain vast quantities of dual-use materials for its nuclear weapons programs in large part because of its formal compliance with the NPT. It is possible that vigorous pursuit of the reactor option, even if conducted in secret, was felt to be place this advantage in excessive jeopardy. As Pakistan showed with gas centrifuge technology in the 70s and Iraq demonstrated with EMIS technology in the 80s, anti-proliferation efforts tended to wear blinders to methods of proliferation thought less likely.

Deception is the very essence of espionage, so accurate and authoritative accounts of espionage operations rarely - if ever - exist. There are almost never any official accounts (or if there are, they may lie); documentary sources are few (and may be forged); most information is hearsay, often offered by unnamed sources. So the accounts of covert operations like this can only be considered as tentatively the best available.

Contradictory accounts regarding the apparent Israeli involvement in sabotage and assassinations against Iraq's nuclear program are not hard to find. In the prologue to Stewart Steven's informative The Spymasters of Israel (the 1982 Ballantine paperback edition; not the original 1980 edition) he presents versions of the sabotage of the Osirak core, and the murder of al-Meshad, that place the blame elsewhere. In Steven's account the Osirak core was sabotaged by French security services seeking to delay shipment while the French government persuaded Iraq to accept a different type of core. And al-Meshad was killed by Iraqi intelligence because al-Meshad had provided reactor plans to Israel. In this scenario Israel had argued the proliferation threat to France using the plans in an attempt to get the sale suspended, a French official close to Iraq had disclosed Israel's possession of the plans to Iraq, then Iraq had traced the origin of the plans back to al-Meshad and taken revenge.

When Stevens collected this information he was staying at a hotel in Herzliya, Israel interviewing informants (many under pseudonyms) who had been introduced to him by Israeli associates. His activities were thus inevitably scrutinized and tolerated by Israeli intelligence, and many of his contacts were undoubtedly controlled by Mossad. The information he obtained was thus necessarily 'approved' versions serving the interests of the Israeli government in 1981. When an operation cannot be concealed, disinformation to muddy the waters is the next best thing.

Although Hamza also speculates on some assassinations of Iraqi representatives being the work of Iraq itself, the other evidence regarding the al-Meshad killing - particularly Magalle's tie to Israeli intelligence, her confession to French police, and later murder; as well as Ostrovsky's later account - seem to dismiss the plausibility of Stevens story.

The claim of French sabotage also seems strained, and contradicts Ostrovsky's quite detailed account of the operation. One consideration that may offer some credence to the idea is the less-than-catastrophic damage the core received.

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