Back in the 1990s, the discovery of Iraqi nuclear facilities would have prompted an immediate US attack. Now, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence experts say, the name of the game is not if nuclear weapons will be used but when, under what conditions – and who uses them first.
Other big question marks hang over the impact nuclear warfare will have on global politics, the oil and financial markets and the war against terrorism. Much will depend on which country is victimized by atomic aggression, how badly it is crippled and whether it will be in any condition to retaliate or launch a second strike.
Three countries hold the key to the new Middle East nuclear equation: the United States, Israel and Iraq. All three have first-strike capabilities within the range of their respective nuclear arsenals.
Most of the information on Iraq’s nuclear armory comes from Iraqi exiles. They all repeat the same mantra: Iraq was able to build an atomic bomb in the late 1980s, but Saddam Hussein wanted a small, smart bomb to fit as a warhead on a Scud missile. In the early 1990s, he was persuaded by threats of American invasion and domestic insurgency to make do with any kind of nuke as long as it was immediately available. He decided to develop a weapon first and only then worry about a vehicle for delivering it.
On September 30, 1998, the Washington Post reported under the headline, “Iraqis work toward A-bomb”:
“United Nations arms inspectors reported twice to the United States in 1996 and 1997 that they had credible intelligence indicating that Iraq built and has maintained three to for implosion devices that lack only cores of enriched uranium to make 20-kiloton nuclear weapons, according to US government and UN sources.”
Evidence turned up near Kabul and Kandahar, in the course of the Afghanistan War, shows that, as of 1998, al Qaeda has had in its possession a little more than half the amount of enriched uranium mentioned in the Washington Post article. Therefore, it makes sense to extrapolate that Iraq, with its far greater resources, must have acquired sufficient enriched uranium to build those 20-kiloton bombs.
Interviewed some time after he defected in 1994, Dr Khidir Hamza, former director of Iraq’s nuclear arms program and the most senior Iraqi scientist to escape to the West, had few doubts. Asked if Saddam was working on a nuclear bomb that could be dropped from a plane, Hamza replied:
“Yes, I think that is why they are still working on it. When you have a nuclear bomb you have to harden it so it can survive the long trip to its target, and also work once it gets there. We did not have this hardening ability in 1990. We were barely able to build a dummy, empty bomb. The hardening work began after the (1991) war. I think that today most of the parts can be hardened to the point of surviving the trip to target. I believe the series of bombs are more effective because they have been scaled down.”
In 1995, another defector, Saddam’s brother-in-law Hussein Kamel, confirmed: “We successfully completed the first test of an Iraqi atomic bomb. It had a 10-kiloton yield and contained 93 percent pure enriched uranium. Iraq became the first country to test a nuclear weapon without the knowledge of the international community.”
At the time, US intelligence agencies dismissed Kamel’s disclosures as science fiction for the sake of ingratiating himself with the West.
But the testimony of the two former senior figures in Iraq’s nuclear program – and of Abbas al-Janabi, private secretary to Saddam’s son Uday – revealed that Iraq had successfully conducted a nuclear test in September 1989 deep under Razaza Lake, southeast of Baghdad, and had since built up a nuclear stockpile. The blast was not detected because of the bomb’s size – as small as the one that destroyed Hiroshima during World War Two – and it was deep enough to be muffled. Iraq, they reported, had later carried out more tests. Bombs were hidden in a bunker under the Hamrin Mountains, north of Baghdad.
All the information assembled suggests that Iraq’s nuclear inventory consists of three Hiroshima-size bombs, three implosion bombs and three thermo-nuclear bombs, a total of nine atomic bombs.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report this figure as being close to the one estimated by US intelligence.
A gravity bomb and radiological weapon were developed at Nassar Industries, a dual-purpose facility north of Baghdad.
The plan for a delivery vehicle was based on an engine with a payload chamber of 1.25 meters in diameter and the capability to deliver a one-ton warhead to a range of 1,200 km (720 miles). It was also developed at a seemingly innocuous Nassar plant surrounded by other factories that manufacture vital parts of the atomic weapon.
The Nassar 28 facility, for example, made the 400 kg (880 lb) casings for the bomb and is believed to have produced 100 units so far. UN inspectors destroyed 25 casings before 1998, leaving 75 unaccounted for.
The Iraqis now have several dozen nuclear weapons that combine the efficiency of conventional gravity bombs with the dispersal of radioactive material. These radiological devices contain fissionable matter, plutonium and other material from civilian atomic reactors. They produce an effect similar to radioactive fallout from a nuclear weapon that can contaminate large areas and cause mass casualties and the quick collapse of the local medical system. Radiological bombs are meant to be used mainly against population centers and to contaminate water supplies.
Saddam has trained a special 50-strong suicide unit to detonate the bombs. Known as the “Men of Sacrifice”, they are periodically transferred to other special units to ensure their training remains secret and far from the prying eyes of foreign intelligence. Many of these suicide terrorists are Palestinians living in Lebanon.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources, the hardcore kamikazes are the source of US and Israeli concerns that Saddam’s nuclear strike will not be carried out by planes or missiles but by Palestinian terrorist cells or others using or infiltrating their network.
The “Men of Sacrifice” often travel to other countries, including the United States, to spy out their assigned targets. Reconnaissance missions have also been carried out in London, Paris, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Beersheba.
It is still unclear how Iraq intends to transfer nuclear weapons to suicide units in the field. A single 12-kiloton bomb weighs almost two tons. But DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources note that, after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, large container ships packed with al Qaeda operatives and weapons reached harbor on the East and West coasts of the United States. Iraqi nuclear bombs could have been delivered the same way, assembled or semi-assembled on trucks unloaded at the pier and driven to the chosen blast site.
According to Iraq’s war strategy, “this weapon should be used near the border against the largest number of advancing enemy soldiers as possible”. The same doctrine of causing mass casualties applies to civilian population centers.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report that Iraqi scientists have assembled three types of radiological weapons, all capable of being transported by truck. Their components have been scattered in several hidden locations but they can be collected and assembled swiftly. Some 10 such secret sites are believed to exist, putting Iraq in a high state of operational readiness.
Al-Hussein Missile Brigade 223 – Never Inspected
No UN arms inspector has ever roared up in a Landrover to give Iraq’s 223rd al-Hussein Missile Brigade the once-over. Nor was a word written about the 223rd in Baghdad’s massive arms declaration to the world body claiming Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction.
Nonetheless, according to our intelligence sources, this unit has between 45 and 60 al-Hussein missiles with a range close to 800 km (480 miles). Some are configured to carry chemical and biological warheads, and they are all under tight presidential control.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly brought this outfit to light in our last issue when we reported that American and British special forces had encircled some 223rd‘s elements.
Special Unit 2001 is responsible for the storage and transfer of chemical and biological weapons, including the 223rd‘s warheads. The brigade includes three operational battalions, each with at least one launch device in a state of full operational readiness. The brigade’s three other battalions are on standby, meaning their launch devices have not been assembled. Unconfirmed intelligence reports say the 223rd incorporates two other al-Hussein missile units armed with cruise missiles and drones capable of delivering chemical and biological agents. The information is based on previous reports that special 50-ton flatbed transport vehicles called al-Nida have been built for them. But it also highly likely the additional units simply provide auxiliary services for the brigade.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report that the al-Hussein missiles built especially for the 223rd are complex and sophisticated. They were designed with detachable warheads capable of delivering a one-ton payload at a distance of 650 km (390 miles).
It is now clear the Iraqis did not let UN sanctions get in the way of their program to develop weapons of mass destruction, particularly long-range missiles.
Under limitations imposed by the sanctions, Iraq developed and tested missiles with a range of only 150 km (90 miles). But Iraqi scientists, with longer ranges in mind, tested the missiles’ re-entry into the atmosphere and developed state of the art guidance systems. Computer simulations, wind tunnel and engineering tests were conducted secretly during the manufacturing process. Iraq also developed practice and operational warheads, testing various configurations to achieve the best design for carrying a non-conventional payload. Iraq ran a seemingly sanction-compliant research program called ‘Meteo 1″ that was really aimed at building a warhead that could be dropped by parachute. It is unclear how much progress, if any, the Iraqis made.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources note that since the last time the United States went to war against Iraq, Baghdad has had more than a decade to improve its decoy system, weapons dispersal procedures, command and control links and attack methods.
Early models of Iraqi bombs and warheads could not deliver large quantities of chemical or biological material. Dispersal was poor and the trigger apparatus inaccurate. Iraq lacked weather monitoring systems and other sensors essential for long-range attacks.
But over the past six years, Iraqi scientists have worked out the gremlins and vastly improved the munitions. Iraq has conducted secret weapons experiments under the guises of civilian technological development. Target acquisition techniques and weather sensors have been improved. Iraq’s advanced weapons are now probably five to 10 times more effective than their original models. Passing UN inspections and the perusal of official documents cannot accurately establish the full gamut of Iraq’s progress.
Intelligence agencies would be better placed to pick up clues by sustained monitoring of the influx of weapons experts into special Iraqi units such as the 223rd and of live-fire exercises.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military experts believe the strides Iraq’s military and its scientists have made afford Saddam, for the first time, a second-strike capability.
Iraq will retain the option of using the 223rd Missile Brigade should a nuclear or radiological attack on a US or Israeli city elicit retaliatory neutron bomb strikes against Baghdad or Tikrit. Alternatively, the 223rd would be able to fire missiles tipped with chemical, biological or nuclear warheads at US troops advancing on Baghdad for an all-out American offensive to oust Saddam.
Even a punishing US nuclear response would still leave the Iraqis with one last option: terrorism.