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The Bomb in My Garden: The Secrets of Saddam's Nuclear Mastermindby Mahdi Obeidi, Kurt Pitzer
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Obeidi, the former director-general of Iraq's Ministry of Industry and Military Industrialization under Saddam Hussein, was involved in Iraq's quest for a nuclear bomb beginning in the late 1970s. In this memoir, he tells his story of his work in the program, describing how the efforts came to a halt after the first Gulf War, and how he watched as the U.S. used allegations he knew were false to justify the invasion of his country. In many parts, the story is as much personal as professional as he worries about the fate of his family in difficult times. Annotation ©2004 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR
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The Bomb in My Garden
By Mahdi Obeidi
John Wiley & Sons, Inc.ISBN: 0-471-67965-8
Chapter OneThe Bomb in My Garden
I emerged from my daughter's home the morning of April 10, 2003, to find the city of Baghdad in a state of total anarchy. Two days of ferocious battle during the American invasion had left carnage and confusion in its wake. Intermittent gunfire and explosions echoed through the city. Columns of smoke from burning government buildings rose into the sky across the horizon. The smell of sulfur and toxic gases released from the fires permeated the warm morning air. A sense of jittery calm settled on the residential streets of my daughter's neighborhood.
A few neighbors crept out of their homes to look at the two houses down the block that had been destroyed by American artillery two nights earlier. The structures lay half in rubble. A small crowd stood shaking their heads over the tragedy, but no one seemed to know whether anyone had been killed in these homes. On the street corner, the charred remains of two Iraqi military trucks stood like twisted sculptures of war, their frames blown apart and partly melted. Nearby, a group of teenage boys bent over the severed arm of an Iraqi soldier lying in the gutter. The body to which it should have been attached was nowhere to be seen.
One of my daughter's neighbors, a middle-aged man I didn't recognize, came to me and asked after the welfare of my family.
"We are all alive and safe, thanks be to God," I said. "And yours?"
He was extremely agitated and said he was not sure. Telephone service was cut throughout Iraq, and he had no news of his eldest son's family, who lived in the northeastern section of the city. He was desperate to drive across town to find them.
"Do you think it is safe to make the journey?" he asked.
"I don't know," I said. "Things seem very unstable, but perhaps if you proceed cautiously, it will be fine. I hope to take my family back to our own home, too."
Leaving my wife and daughters in the house, my son Zaid and I drove west toward the al-Ghazaliya quarter to see whether our house had survived the combat that had engulfed our neighborhood. As we approached the commercial area around the University District, the roads were so littered with wreckage and destroyed vehicles it was difficult to navigate. The pop of gunfire echoed off the walls, and I could feel the adrenaline rising in my neck. Traffic lights were dead, along with the city's electricity, and drivers recklessly careened toward each other, ignoring rules of the road and eyeing each other with apprehension.
I looked out the passenger window in shock at the obscenity of the wreckage. Next to a white minivan with bullet holes in its windshield lay the bodies of two men in bloodstained white robes, their faces black and swollen with death. Zaid swerved around the corpse of a donkey that had fallen in the road, pockmarked with shrapnel wounds. Its four legs, stiff with rigor mortis, pointed at the passing cars as though accusing them of the outrage.
Reaching the commercial district, we now saw plenty of ordinary citizens in the road. Scores of men scurried across the street carrying looted furniture on their heads and electrical appliances under their arms. They looked wild, as if delirious. Young men disappeared inside the smashed-in storefront of a computer shop and came out with armloads of equipment and anything else of value. Several cars drove past with trunks open and bulging with stolen goods. A few blocks further along, the owner of a bicycle shop stood guard outside his property armed with a rifle. On side streets I noticed residents setting up roadblocks to the entrances to their neighborhoods using chunks of debris, palm fronds, and broken bottles.
"What is this?" I said to Zaid. "What is happening to these men?"
I was momentarily overcome with shame. As an Iraqi who is proud of his people, I could not believe this behavior. Baghdad was a place of civilized people, not looters. It was as though the sudden removal of the Saddam regime had induced a temporary madness.
We drove down Al-Nafaq, the tunnel road that led to one of the large intersections of Baghdad. A giant mural of Saddam Hussein stood in the middle of the traffic circle. As we drew closer, I could see a group of men dressed in black and heavily armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade launchers: members of the Fedayeen Saddam, the fiercely loyal personal militia of the president. I stared at them in disbelief. It seemed impossible that Fedayeen fighters could be at this intersection. The Americans had swept through the district during the invasion and couldn't be far away.
The Fedayeen had spread out across the roundabout and were using their weapons to wave traffic around the circle. Their faces looked hard but weary from days of heavy fighting. Two of the militiamen leaned against the portrait of Saddam as though in the absence of the president to protect, they would make their last stand defending only his image.
Zaid and I sped three quarters of the way around the traffic circle and onto the entrance to the Abu Ghraib Expressway, leading to our neighborhood. As soon as we made the turn, my heart froze. Less than two hundred meters away, a column of American armored vehicles was headed directly for us, taking up all three lanes in the wrong direction. We were trapped.
I glanced through the rear window. I was certain that any moment the Fedayeen fighters would hear the approaching convoy and we would be caught in crossfire. Zaid and I looked desperately for an exit from Abu Ghraib Street as the American column grew closer. Their cannons pointed directly at us. We were seconds away from annihilation.
"Over there!" I shouted.
Zaid veered off an exit to our right onto a small byroad parallel to the main street. Seconds later the tanks roared past us, and the shooting began. The first heavy round shuddered through the air, followed by staccato machine-gun rounds. A grenade exploded somewhere behind our car as the Fedayeen Saddam fighters returned fire. Terrified that we would be hit by stray bullets, we turned onto a residential side street, drove a hundred meters, and parked. Only a half mile from the battle, we heard the constant spray of gunfire with only short pauses in between. It seemed too close, so we drove another hundred meters down the road.
For fifteen minutes the air was torn apart by the cracking sound of gunfire. I imagined the Iraqi fighters scrambling for cover, hopelessly outmatched by the American armor. Finally, the shooting came in spasms. Then we heard mostly silence, broken by infrequent bursts.
"It is getting less now," I told Zaid. "Let's move on."
As we turned onto the byroad, I looked back and saw many American vehicles parked at the intersection, but no soldiers. The Americans must have pursued Saddam's militiamen into the surrounding streets. Later we were told that eleven Fedayeen militiamen had been killed there.
Further west, the Abu Ghraib Expressway was eerily deserted. Normally, it was one of the busiest roads in Baghdad. Now it felt dead, as though the Americans had turned it into a ghost highway.
On the road to our house, spent bullet shells and debris littered the pavement like gravel, proof that our quarter had seen heavy fighting. When we arrived at our security gate, we could see that our five-bedroom house was intact. I unlocked the front door and Zaid and I went room to room, methodically checking for signs of damage. A water glass lay shattered on the kitchen floor, presumably having fallen due to the force of nearby explosions. One window was cracked. Otherwise our home seemed unscathed.
I stepped out into our walled garden, which had been my place of refuge during the years I spent as Saddam Hussein's nuclear mastermind. I am probably overzealous in my gardening, which I approach with a typical engineer's eye for the straight line and the perfect detail. I surveyed the yard for flaws. The date palm next to the fence looked fine. A single young mango still hung from the little mango tree, and I expected it would ripen within about three months. I lingered over the lime tree, whose sapling I had bought years ago from a hothouse in Holland while searching for the secrets of uranium enrichment during the 1980s. The tiny citrus flowers had survived the war and would soon become fruit. The Indian berry vines, grafted from cuttings I had gathered on a trip to Bombay, were in good shape. Around our kidney-shaped lawn, the gardenias were in full bloom.
The dichondra grass, with its delicate round leaves, was already drying out in the hot Iraqi sun and badly needed watering. I noticed several places along its border where the lawn had overgrown my careful hedging. A few pieces of debris littered the lawn, including a cone-shaped gray object about a foot long, which I didn't recognize at first.
I turned the corner into the side yard and saw that something was amiss with the metal rack where I kept my gardening tools. It leaned sideways and its tin roof had collapsed and curled around something. Coming nearer, I was stunned as I realized that an unexploded missile poked through both sides of the destroyed shelving. Could that be? Yes, there was no doubt. Thin, but more than two meters in length, it would have been taller than I am if stood upright. I calculated the base as roughly 25 centimeters in diameter. It was whitish in color. I noticed the fins halfway along its sides had chipped off. The front end was blunt, as if the nose cone had come off.
I knew right away that it was an American bomb, because it was completely unlike anything in the Iraqi arsenal. I didn't know much about American missiles, but with my many years directing Iraq's nuclear program, and then as one of the directors of Saddam's military-industrial complex, I was very familiar with rocketry in general. Its length suggested it had been launched from the air. A bomb of this size would obliterate everything within at least a fifty-yard radius, probably much more, including my entire house and garden. I quickly discarded the notion that it had been aimed at my home. The Americans had no reason to target the home of a scientist, and even if they had, I doubted they would have known where I lived. The bomb must have been aimed at a nearby Iraqi military position.
Its front end had come to rest just a few feet from the wall of my daughters' bedroom. I shuddered as I tried to calculate the mathematical percentages of the two factors that had favored our survival. The split-second decision I had made on April 8 to spend the night of battle away from home had been nearly fifty-fifty. I didn't know the probability of a missile failing to explode on impact, but figured it was low. If both factors had gone the other way, though, we would have been obliterated in a millisecond. Suddenly it dawned on me: the object on my lawn was very likely its fuse.
I stood looking at the missile for a few moments before I was struck by the incredible irony of the situation. Less than twenty feet away, in the ground beneath a lotus tree next to my rose garden, lay a green fifty-gallon drum that I had buried in 1992. It contained the remnants of Iraq's nuclear program.
Inside was the complete set of extremely detailed plans and design drawings needed to manufacture centrifuges. More than two hundred booklets served as instruction manuals for building every piece of the centrifuge and how to assemble them. Some of the parts are so difficult to manufacture that the specifications for them are among the world's most classified information. The documents provided the specifications, tolerances, and dimensions for each part, along with the detailed designs for manufacturing them.
Also buried in the drum were prototypes of four of the most highly advanced centrifuge components. These metal pieces, small enough to fit in a suitcase, don't seem dangerous to look at, but they are incredibly complex. Manufacturing them requires elaborate calculations of geometry, advanced metallurgy, and knowledge of stress and tolerances beyond the capabilities of most nations. I spent millions of dollars, traveled thousands of miles, and negotiated a hair-raising series of international deals in order to learn the secrets of their manufacture.
One of the four most intricate parts is the ball bearing on which the centrifuge rotor sits. Nearly small enough to conceal in your hand, the bearing is possibly its most important piece and requires mathematical precision to an infinitesimal degree. Roughly the shape of a toy spinning top, the shiny metallic ball bearing balances the centrifuge rotor tube as it spins at speeds greater than 60,000 rpm. At the bottom tip of the bearing a tiny round bead, four millimeters in diameter and etched with microscopic grooves, gives the whole centrifuge grab and play. Even the pattern of the microscopic grooves is a highly classified secret.
The second prototype I had buried was the centrifuge motor. Made of gleaming aluminum and about the size of a round loaf of bread, it contains an interdependent series of magnets and coils that drive the centrifuge. The centrifuge rotor hangs inside a hole in its center, and the magnets create an electromagnetic field so powerful that it spins the centrifuge without ever touching it. To a scientist, it is a beautiful piece of work.
The magnetic upper bearing was another marvel of science. Two segmented aluminum-nickel-cobalt magnet discs, roughly the size of checkers pieces, are connected by wispy threads of steel. Sitting at the top of the centrifuge, these magnets hold the rotor in place in a vacuum as it spins at supersonic speeds.
The fourth component-a thin, gunmetal-colored disk about six inches in diameter and two inches in height-looked deceptively ordinary to the untrained eye. Called a bellows, its purpose is to connect centrifuge tubes end to end, to create a longer centrifuge of approximately three meters in length. This longer version can enrich uranium substantially faster than ordinary two-foot-long centrifuges, thereby increasing bomb-making capacity considerably. The dimensions of a crimp-a microscopic ridge in its midsection where the centrifuge tubes meet at the point of greatest stress-required something called hairy mathematics. At the time, even the Japanese had failed to design such a bellows.
These drawings, documents, and prototypes represented the accumulated knowledge of the Iraqi nuclear centrifuge program. They were not actual weapons of mass destruction, but they were probably the most valuable building blocks for WMD that Iraq ever possessed. Saddam's son Qusay had ordered me to keep them safe from UN weapons inspectors in 1992, and the Iraqi government concocted a story that they had been destroyed by the security services. Although the weapons inspectors were extremely skeptical, this was the story we had maintained despite continual pressure.
Excerpted from The Bomb in My Garden by Mahdi Obeidi Excerpted by permission.
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What People are saying about this
--Fareed Zakaria, author of The Future of Freedom
"The Bomb in My Garden is important and utterly gripping. The old cliché is true -- you start reading, and you don't want to stop. Mahdi Obeidi's story makes clear how hard Saddam Hussein tried to develop a nuclear weapon, and the reasons he fell short. It is also unforgettable as a picture of how honorable people tried to cope with a despot's demands. I enthusiastically recommend this book."
--James Fallows, National Correspondent, The Atlantic Monthly
“Obeidi was the key scientist in Saddam’s centrifuge program, and he was central when they tried to conceal it. He was already thought to be too friendly to the weapons inspectors, and he showed considerable personal courage in coming forward as he did during very unsettled conditions after the war.”
—David Kay, former U.N. weapons inspector and Head of the Iraqi Survey Group in charge of searching for weapons of mass destruction
Meet the Author
MAHDI OBEIDI oversaw Saddam's top-secret centrifuge program and later became director-general of Iraq's Ministry of Industry and Military Industrialization. The few remaining components and plans for the uranium-enriching centrifuge that he voluntarily turned over to the United States during the war still represent the largest collection of evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
KURT PITZER began the Iraq war embedded with the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division and jumped his embed when Baghdad fell. He met Obeidi there and helped him turn his secrets over to the United States.
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