Looking For Nukes in All The Wrong Places

It has been several days since the Iraqis dropped their nearly 12,000-page weapons of mass destruction declaration on the United Nations Security Council. And only a couple of weeks since U.N. inspectors once again crossed into Iraq.

From various public sources like radio, television news and newspapers, I have been able to glean that for the most part the inspectors are visiting sites that had been identified as potential weapons sites by the earlier United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) inspectors. I agree that these sites probably are a good place to start. I also suspect that the odds of the inspectors actually finding something at these sites is somewhere between zero and nothing.

Saddam has had more than sufficient time to “clean” potential inspection sites. But to keep him “honest,” we still have to go through the motions. The current inspection team is obligated to visit all the old sites.

How many inspectors does it take to inspect a site that is guaranteed to be empty? The images I’ve seen show significant numbers of inspectors wandering around, looking a bit lost, a bit bewildered, not quite knowing what to do next, while not stepping on the heels of the other inspectors.

A year ago I wrote in DefenseWatch (see “A Nuclear Armed Iraq Must be the Next Target,” DefenseWatch, Dec 12, 2001) that, based upon credible evidence from a key defector, satellite imagery, and a slew of apparently unrelated facts, Iraq exploded a Hiroshima-type nuclear device on Sept. 19, 1989, in a natural cavern located under Lake Rezzaza, a popular 1960s tourist area about 90 miles southwest of Baghdad.

During the two preceding years, using forced labor of a thousand prisoners, Saddam reinforced an ancient 4-kilometer-long lava tube that connected to a large natural cavern carved out of solid rock beneath the popular lake. Before the nuclear team set off the device in the cavern, the prisoners plugged the tunnel with 80 feet of solid concrete and 70 feet of rock and sand. From orbit the site looked like an irrigation project, complete with water culverts and diversionary locks. Even a cursory on-site inspection would have shown a casual observer the same picture.

At 10:30 on the morning of Sept. 19, a seismometer at University of Sulaymaniyah’s local seismic station registered a seismic event on the southwestern shore of Lake Rezzaza with an intensity of 2.7 on the Richter scale, according to American academics who conducted an unrelated routine review of the tapes. This is the only known physical record of the event. Muffled by rock and the lake above, and the four-kilometer-long plugged tunnel, there was no widespread dispersal of the shockwaves. Nobody else measured anything at all.

According to a key defector from the program, the prisoners then washed down the outside of the tunnel, using the “irrigation” culverts to carry away the contaminated water, and then collapsed the entrance using conventional explosives. A significant number of them died from radiation exposure. Saddam had the rest killed to maintain secrecy, and buried their bodies in nearby caves.

All that U.S. intelligence could see from orbit was the irrigation project. Saddam had planned well.

In fact, not until three years later did we know anything about this event, when a defector who was a participant on the project shed first light on Iraq’s new status. U.S. intelligence then filled in the gaps with information gleaned from many sources, bits and pieces that, by themselves didn’t make sense, but when integrated into the larger picture, gave us a plausible scenario of what had occurred.

Perhaps the most convincing document to surface is a letter allegedly written to Saddam Hussein by the director of the program, Saddam’s son-in-law, Hussein Kamel al-Majid, following the successful test: “With the help of Allah and the effort of the heroic freedom fighters in the Military Industrialization Institution and the Atomic Power Organization, we have successfully completed Test Number One of the Iraqi Atomic Bomb. Its strength was 10 kilotons and highly enriched uranium was used with a purity of 93 percent …. With this experiment Iraq is considered the first country in the world to carry out this sort of experiment without the knowledge of the international monitoring authorities.”

Do we know for sure? No. But today we have the capability to find out. Lake Rezzaza is still there. The plugged tunnel, if it exists, is still there. The remains of any prisoners buried nearby, many of them still radioactive, can be located. No matter how well they scrubbed the site, any residual radioactivity still remains.

The intelligence I have dug up from an exhaustive internet search indicates that Saddam’s nuclear team may have produced three Hiroshima-type fission devices, three implosion-type fission devices, and three tritium-boosted thermonuclear devices. The components for all these weapons apparently were assembled at secret locations under Mount Hemrin, about 85 miles northeast of Baghdad, and are presently stored in a deep underground bunker in the Hemrin Mountains. Although this information should still be classified as speculative, the data are sufficiently credible that we simply cannot ignore them.

This is where the U.N. inspection team should be looking; not in Saddam’s luxurious palaces which he has had years to cleanse of any earlier weapons production. We need to be probing these mountains with every bit of advanced nuclear-detection technology that we possess.

The inspection team members should have been swarming over Lake Rezzaza the first day they hit Iraq, armed with radiation detectors and sonic probes to find the hidden burial caves. It’s a no-brainer, and I – for one – want to know why they haven’t done this.

As I discussed in “Al Qaeda Poses both Nuclear and Biological Threat,” (DefenseWatch, Jun 19, 2002), I believe it unlikely that Saddam will give up either his implosion or tritium-boosted devices, although he might make the older three Hiroshima-type devices available to al Qaeda. This means we absolutely need to find them before he uses them in an insane attempt to neutralize Israel or even one of his Arab neighbors in a desperate show of bravado.

Saddam Hussein’s science adviser and spokesman, Gen. Amer al-Saadi, has challenged the inspection team to find anything at all. It’s time for our guys to do the job we are paying them to do, to blanket Lake Rezzaza and Mount Hemrin, and find what we suspect is there, before this gang of thugs can use it on our friends, or even our own troops.

Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor

Submariner, diver, scientist, author & adventurer. 22 mos underwater, a yr in the equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in the Arctic, and a yr at the South Pole. BS Marine Physics & Meteorology, PhD in Engineering. Authors non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction. Lives in Centennial, CO.

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