YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The World

Iraq's 'Nuclear Mastermind' Tells Tale of Ambition, Deceit

October 03, 2004|Bob Drogin | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — On most days now, Mahdi Obeidi rides his new mountain bike, plays with his grandkids and works on getting a U.S. patent for technology he originally developed to build a nuclear bomb for Saddam Hussein.

Obeidi, who headed Hussein's uranium enrichment program until it was shut down in 1991, is the only Iraqi weapons scientist that the CIA is known to have brought to the United States after the invasion last year. The CIA also flew eight of his family members here in August 2003 and secretly set them up in three adjoining apartments in a leafy Virginia suburb close to downtown Washington.

But it is far less clear what happened to most of the 500 other scientists U.S. officials considered to be at the core of Hussein's programs to build missiles and nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

U.S. officials have intercepted offers from Iran in recent months to hire several former Iraqi nuclear and missile scientists. None are known to have gone to Tehran, which Washington believes is trying to build a nuclear weapon.

But U.S. officials are also concerned about the danger that remains inside Iraq. "The immediate fear is the proximity of these scientists to the insurgents and terrorists in Iraq," a U.S. official who travels frequently to Baghdad said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "That has become a compelling issue for us."

And Obeidi is speaking out now to warn how easy it would be for someone to build a nuclear weapon.

The search for Iraqi scientists, and evidence of programs to produce weapons of mass destruction, will take center stage Wednesday when Charles A. Duelfer, head of the CIA-run Iraq Survey Group, appears before the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services committees to present his final 1,500-page report on Iraq's long-defunct efforts to produce chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

Duelfer's report is likely to spark renewed debate in the presidential campaign as President Bush and challenger Sen. John F. Kerry trade charges over whether the U.S. needed to go to war in Iraq.

Duelfer has found no evidence that Baghdad resumed its nuclear arms program or produced any chemical or germ agents for military weapons after 1991, officials said. Nor has Duelfer found evidence of ongoing efforts to develop such weapons before the 2003 war.

But Duelfer also has told colleagues that evidence indicated that Hussein intended to mobilize his scientists to resume production of illicit arms if Iraq ever were free of U.N. inspections, trade sanctions and other international oversight. He found evidence of small clandestine laboratories, procurement of banned materials overseas, and work on illegal missiles and drones.

Up to eight of the 500 weapons scientists remain in custody in Iraq and about 70 others work in two programs in Baghdad that the State Department set up to hire out-of-work weapons experts. Others are teaching, working for Iraqi industries or government ministries, or have moved to other Arab nations.

Many others -- including Obeidi's two former top deputies -- have simply vanished.

Obeidi, who met Hussein three times, said there was "no question" that the former Iraqi president wanted to revive his illicit weapons programs, but added that it wasn't clear whether the dictator knew his regime had no active programs to build them. Obeidi said Hussein was a "lunatic" whose grip on reality was increasingly unstable in the years before the war.

"He lived in a world of hallucination," Obeidi, a dapper man of 60, said over lunch. "You could see he was deceiving himself. But he not only fooled himself. He fooled the world."

Obeidi also fooled the world. He holds a master's degree from the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colo., and a doctorate from the University College of Swansea in Wales. During the 1980s, he traveled across the United States and Europe to buy nuclear components, computer programs and research by lying about his plans.

In July 1987, Hussein's top deputy ordered Obeidi to direct a covert crash program to enrich uranium. By the time the Persian Gulf War began in January 1991, he had built a prototype centrifuge system capable of turning Iraq's small stockpile of enriched uranium into weapons-grade fuel for a crude atomic bomb. Obeidi suspects that Hussein would have used it against Israel.

"We were so close to getting a bomb," Obeidi said. "We were so close to getting tens or hundreds of bombs. To us, the sky was the limit.... Looking back, the world was lucky."

So was Obeidi. When Iraq shuttered its nuclear program after the cease-fire that ended the 1991 war, Obeidi buried his centrifuge designs and several key components in a 50-gallon barrel under a lotus tree in his backyard.

Over the next few years, under strict Iraqi orders to conceal himself and all signs of his mothballed program, he repeatedly lied to United Nations inspectors, disguised and destroyed evidence, and once ran out the back door and hid for hours behind a wall to evade a surprise U.N. raid.

Los Angeles Times Articles