Iraq’s Nuclear Program

IRAQ’S NUCLEAR PROGRAM….A couple of weeks ago I received a copy of The Bomb in My Garden, a memoir written by Mahdi Obeidi, “Saddam’s Bombmaker.” I wasn’t inclined to read it at first, but when I flipped it over I found enthusiastic cover blurbs from Fareed Zakaria, James Fallows, and David Kay. It doesn’t get much better than that, so I tucked into it.

As it turns out, it’s a short, breezily told story, thanks to co-author Kurt Pitzer, and it only took a couple of hours to read. And while I don’t really feel like writing a full-blown review of the book, I do have a few comments about it:

  • Making weapons-grade uranium is really hard. Sure, we all knew that already, but if you’re interested in a user-friendly but technically detailed discussion of why it’s so hard and what’s involved, this is a pretty good place to start.

  • Saddam didn’t have a bomb program in place after 1991. But that’s not all: not only didn’t he have an active program, but Mahdi makes it clear that he couldn’t have had a program. There are half a dozen extremely advanced technologies involved that Iraq could get only from foreign sources, and even with a porous embargo in place it was just laughable to think they could get their hands on them.

    In other words, all the prewar nonsense about a “smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud” was just that: nonsense. And not just nonsense, but stuff the Bushies obviously knew was nonsense. It’s impossible to read this book and not come to that conclusion.

  • Mahdi himself comes across as a bit of an enigma. The portrait he paints of himself alternates between nerdy scientist swept up by doing science for its own sake and terrified underling doing his job solely for fear of retribution from Saddam and his henchmen.

    And yet, it doesn’t quite add up. Over and over he describes himself closing surreptitious deals and managing extremely tricky technologies in ways that could have been subtly slowed down with no effort at all and with no chance of being caught. And yet, in each case he seems to have played his role with relish. Mahdi is vouched for by no less than David Albright, but I can’t help but wonder if he was a more enthusiastic proponent of an Iraqi bomb than he makes himself out to be.

Overall, an interesting read. I’m not sure it’s worth buying in hardback, but I’m glad I had a chance to read it.