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Analysis: Saddam Hussein's Search For Weapons Of Mass Destruction And Changing American Attitudes Toward His Quest

All Things Considered: November 23, 2002

Tracking Saddam's Quest for Weapons

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A planeload of equipment arrived in Baghdad today--computers and communications equipment for United Nations weapons inspectors. A team of 18 inspectors arrives on Monday to start looking for Iraq's suspected nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs. The UN inspectors will be asking Saddam Hussein to give up on the work of more than 30 years. In the next few minutes, we'll examine Saddam Hussein's search for weapons of mass destruction and changing American attitudes toward his quest.

For more than 20 years, Khidir Hamza was one of Saddam's leading nuclear scientists.

Mr. KHIDIR HAMZA: He has a very unconventional view of Arab history. He think the Arabs were a great before Islam. And he want that greatness back. And his way of having that greatest back is the weapons.

INSKEEP: Saddam started building up Iraq's military soon after the Ba'ath Party came to power in 1968. By the 1970s, as Saddam worked to gain total control of the government, he involved himself in Iraq's nuclear program. Saddam was willing to spend billions for an Iraqi bomb, but he spent the money shrewdly to avoid detection. Khidir Hamza remembers when nuclear scientists asked for a special compound with their own luxury housing and stores. Saddam declined. Iraq had signed a nuclear non-proliferation treaty and special housing would only attract attention.

Mr. HAMZA: He brought us in a two-days meeting. He says, `Let's talk about it.' He says, `If I create an atomic energy, an island of prosperity, now what would people think? What would visitor think? What you are asking is for yourself to be declared working on a nuclear weapon. That's what we are saying. Everybody will be hunting you all over the world. You'll be hunted. You want that?'

INSKEEP: After he became president in 1979, Saddam Hussein devoted tremendous resources to the nuclear program. He pulled professors out of universities and pulled engineers out of the oil industry. Iraq purchased a nuclear reactor from France whose engineers and scientists didn't want to know what Iraq planned to do with it. The program continued even after 1981 when the Israeli air force bombed Iraq's biggest reactor. Western governments guessed what Iraq was planning, but that didn't stop the United States from trying to improve relations with Baghdad. When a pro-American government collapsed in nearby Iran, the US was looking for a counterweight to the Islamic revolutionary government that replaced it. Howard Teicher was an official in the Reagan administration at the time.

Mr. HOWARD TEICHER: There was a debate. There were people in the community who said, `He's obviously building this reactor and, you know, training these scientists and trying to get these centrifuges and doing'--these are all the things that go into making nuclear weapons. So there were many types of technologies that people saw him building. Yet there was this fundamental belief that, you know, he's just doing what, well, other people do and it's really not for weapons of mass destruction, and you couldn't really prove anything.

INSKEEP: The US offered Iraq intelligence that assisted in its long war against Iran. Then in 1983, President Reagan sent a special envoy to meet Saddam Hussein. The envoy was Donald Rumsfeld, the past and future secretary of Defense. In his meeting with Saddam, Rumsfeld paved the way for the two countries to establish diplomatic relations for the first time in years. Soon afterward, new US Ambassador David Newton arrived to present his credentials to Saddam.

Ambassador DAVID NEWTON: Yeah. Well, of course, in diplomacy, you have to play the cards you're handed. These were two terrible regimes, Iraq and Iran, but these were the two major powers in the Gulf and our primary concern was to prevent Iran from conquering Iraq and dominating the Gulf.

INSKEEP: In those days, Antifad Kanbar(ph) was a soldier in the Iraqi army. Today, he's in exile, a member of the Iraqi opposition. He recalls being disappointed in the United States.

Mr. ANTIFAD KANBAR: The whole world collaborated with Saddam and they gave him a free hand, the Yugoslavs, the Soviets then, but the American collaboration was the most disappointing.

INSKEEP: Weren't you happy that the United States was trying to help your country win this war against Iran?

Mr. KANBAR: Well, the problem is the United States was not helping our country. It was killing our country by helping the killer of our country.

INSKEEP: Saddam was enlarging his country's stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. When Iraq used chemical weapons against Iranian troops, American officials were furious, but they didn't call Iraq to account. Americans also said little in 1988 when Saddam used chemical weapons against his own people. Kurdish villagers had revolted against the government. Former Iraqi scientist Khidir Hamza says the Iraqi regime used nerve gas on the village of Halabja. After the bombing, the army divided the town into squares in order to measure the weapon's effectiveness.

Mr. HAMZA: That's why a grid was made of the town. And army doctors and army personnel surrounded the town during the bombing. And then they were given a signal. They put their masks on, and then took the antidotes, whatever was needed, and went into town and each in his own part of the grid had to fill a form, say how many people were killed, how many people were sick, how far from the canister, what kind of canister was it. It was an experiment in destroying a town, the effectiveness of the various gases on a town.

INSKEEP: The US remained largely silent until 1990 when Iraq's invasion of Kuwait threatened the free flow of oil from the Persian Gulf. At the time, President George Herbert Walker Bush was asked about the US decision to restore relations with the Iraqis.

President GEORGE BUSH: There was some reason to believe that perhaps improve relations with the West would modify the behavior, but given the invasion, absolutely. I think if everybody had the benefit of total hindsight, why, you'd go back and say, `This didn't make much sense.' I'm not sure having said that, that that would have changed Saddam Hussein's intention to take over Kuwait.

INSKEEP: After the Gulf War, the United Nations imposed weapons inspections on Iraq. The inspectors believed they dismantled most of Iraq's nuclear program. They say they destroyed some, though not necessarily all, of Iraq's chemical and biological weapons. And when the inspectors left in 1998, after years of disputes with the Iraqi leader, the US couldn't do much about it. President Clinton ordered four days of cruise missile strikes on Iraq which killed some civilians but did relatively little damage to weapons programs. Kenneth Pollack was on the staff of the National Security Council at the time.

Mr. KENNETH POLLACK: In 1998, there was no one who thought that we would be able to summon the public support for a full-scale invasion which we knew was the only way to be certain that you could get rid of Saddam. And so instead, we had to look for other ways, kind of half measures, that we might take that might have some chance of getting rid of Saddam Hussein, covert action, supporting the opposition, other things like that, but recognizing that none of them was likely to get rid of Saddam Hussein. And the only thing that would, a full-scale invasion, was off the table.

INSKEEP: Today, an invasion is clearly on the table. A new President Bush is threatening military action as he waits for the results of new weapons inspections.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: There's no negotiations with Mr. Saddam Hussein. Those days are long gone and so are the days of deceit and denial.

INSKEEP: On December 8, Saddam Hussein faces a deadline to disclose all his chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. The Iraqi leader has promised cooperation but remains defiant, saying there's nothing to disclose. Last month, after winning re-election unanimously, the Iraqi leader stood before his country's National Assembly and he took an oath of office.

President SADDAM HUSSEIN (Iraq): (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: `I swear to preserve Iraq's independence, safety and territorial integrity,' Saddam said.

Pres. HUSSEIN: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: Now the Bush administration is confronting the Iraqi president with a choice: risk losing the office he's held for decades or give up the weapons he has sought for as long as he has been in power.

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