Saddam's Bombmaker: The Terrifying Inside Story of the Iraqi Nuclear and Biological Weapons Agenda

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Saddam's Bombmaker: The Terrifying Inside Story of the Iraqi Nuclear and Biological Weapons Agenda, by Khidhir Hamza with Jeff Stein. New York: Scribner, 2000. 337 pages. Index to 352. $26.

Reviewed by Charles Duelfer

In Saddam's Bombmaker, Dr. Khidhir Hamza and Mr. Jeff Stein have provided a personal account of the Iraqi nuclear weapons program that is interesting to read and that illuminates some key aspects of the regime's energetic quest for the most destructive weapons possible. Three elements of Dr. Hamza's narrative stand out. First, the book contains, of course, descriptions of key parts of the nuclear and, to a lesser extent, the biological and chemical weapons programs. Second, and, in some ways more interestingly, this account describes the methods and individuals charged with carrying out the grandiose objectives of Saddam Husayn. Third, Dr. Hamza discusses the pressures and dilemmas faced by Iraq's most talented individuals. This discussion is, in some ways, the most interesting and compelling element of the book.

The history of the Iraqi nuclear program presented here is not comprehensive, but that does not appear to be the objective. The general elements of, and major technical impediments (i.e., uranium enrichment) to Iraq's development of nuclear weapons are described. However, the strength of Dr. Hamza's work is that it reveals the role of certain key personalities (most of whom are still active in Iraq) and procedures (e.g., clandestine overseas procurement). It gives a first-hand look at the evolution of the program, particularly after the bombing by Israel of the Osirik reactor in 1981. This picture shows Saddam Husayn's sustained pursuit during the past quarter century of a nuclear weapon. Some of the details offered may be off the mark (e.g., a building described as being 20 stories tall is no more than ten). Additionally, some statements are made that, while tantalizing, lack supporting evidence (e.g., that the use of chemical and biological weapons during the 1991 Gulf War caused Gulf War Syndrome). However, the value of this book is the unique viewpoint provided by an insider.

Dr. Hamza reminds the reader that nuclear weapons are built by people possessing extraordinary scientific and engineering expertise. These individuals are not necessarily political creatures, nor are they necessarily enthusiastic regime supporters. They were brought into the program through various routes and then motivated through the ruthless application of both extreme punishment and reward. …