The moon was fading from the purple sky over Baghdad, a sign that the time had finally come. This was the day in August 1994 that I was leaving my family, slipping out of the country over the mountains in the north, and heading for the United States, where I could tell the West about Iraq's nuclear bomb.
My wife, Souham, was weeping softly in the kitchen as she cooked breakfast. For weeks she had kept up a brave front, assuring me I was doing the right thing. But now that the moment had come, I knew what she was thinking: If my plan failed, she faced a future alone, a terrifying prospect for any woman in Iraq, but especially for one who had grown up an orphan. I struggled to control my guilt about leaving her behind, even temporarily.
We both knew, however, that we were out of options. Emigration was out of the question. For the last decade, no senior official had been permitted to leave. Blacklists at the borders had all of our names. Iraqi Airways had been grounded since the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Escaping together through the underground was next to impossible as well. A family racing toward the Kurdish frontier was sure to attract the suspicions of the guards at the roadblocks along the way.
As I dressed, I went through a mental checklist, wondering what I might have overlooked. I checked my pockets again for incriminating documents. Even a slip of paper could give me away. And if I were found out, I would quickly disappear into the dungeons, followed by my wife and three sons, all of us facing such inventive tortures that we would beg for our deaths.
The terror of Saddam's regime knew no bounds. Two colleagues had been imprisoned for simply expressing doubts about the nuclear program. One was hung daily by his thumbs and beaten every day for ten years. The other, in a way, fared worse. He also was thrown into the dungeon and beaten, then other people were brought to his cell to be tortured in front of him.
Those who escaped were tracked down. Just the year before, Muayed Naji, an employee at our Atomic Energy Commission, managed to get to Jordan. After visiting the American embassy, he was gunned down on the street by two Iraqi operatives.
As I packed, my hands were clammy and my mouth went dry. Certainly Saddam would design a special regimen of suffering for me if I were caught trying to flee. I was his nuclear bombmaker. I held secrets no one outside Iraq, and only a handful of people inside the country, could know. I could tell the world about our secret work developing the device, our hidden research facilities, the technical equipment we obtained from Germany and other countries, about the twelve thousand nuclear workers we had successfully hidden by scattering them around the country. Not even the aggressive U.N. inspectors, now crawling all over Baghdad, knew what we still had or how dangerous the situation was. None of them knew that Saddam had been within a few months of completing the bomb when he invaded Kuwait. None knew of Saddam's crash program to bypass a test and drop one on the Israelis if his survival were threatened -- no matter that it guaranteed Iraq's own incineration. Saddam couldn't care less for anybody else. He planned to take all of us down with him.
This was the story I had to tell.
I finished dressing and made my way downstairs to the kitchen, where the Iraqi army officer who had arranged my escape was finishing breakfast. Adnan, in his thirties, was a Kurd, one of the famously independent people of the mountainous north, where smuggling was a way of life. With his sandy hair and blue eyes, however, he wouldn't have looked out of place in a Left Bank cafe. As a Kurd, of course, his loathing for Saddam was almost genetically wired, but somehow he'd managed to keep his true allegiances under wraps while successfully operating an underground railway. Today I was his cargo to the frontier.
Sitting at the table was my friend Ali, who'd suffered the murders of both his father and a brother by the regime. For months, security agents had been harassing him for information on the whereabouts of another brother, who had gone underground and joined the Iraqi opposition in the north. In exchange for my paying his way, Ali would serve as my guide among the treacherous Iraqi exiles.
I looked around the kitchen. My eldest son, Firas, twenty-two, barely a man, was fighting off the jitters, smoking incessantly. His face was deathly pale. From the beginning, he had been a key part of the escape plan. He had contacted a go-between to get me out, and before that helped me concoct a cover story to explain my absence from the city: With windfall profits I'd earned from Baghdad's stock market, I was starting a small business on the side in my hometown.
I'd actually earned a reputation as a savvy trader among the regime's senior officials. Some of the stocks I'd bought multiplied ten and twenty times within months. There wasn't any mystery about making a killing: I started with inside information, then invested in companies that imported food and essential goods like auto parts, figuring that Saddam would never relinquish his weapons of mass destruction, that confrontations with U.N. inspectors would continue, and so would the sanctions. The price of essential goods would stay high, along with the profits of the importers whose stock I bought. To me it was only common sense, but most Iraqis shied away from such investments, expecting that sanctions would be removed soon and the bottom would drop out of the import market. I made a small fortune -- and, as it turned out, manufactured a credible cover story along the way.
Now Firas would take on his greatest responsibility, accompanying me partway to the north to make sure I was safely handed off to the next smuggler. When I saw him zip shut his bag and stand up, I knew he was ready.
We ran through the arrangements with my wife one last time. I would carry half of a torn Iraqi dinar note with me. The other half of the bill would remain with Firas. There would be a code word written on his half, known only by the two of us. Only when I arrived safely across the border would I write the matching code word on my half and hand it to the smuggler to take back. When my son got that, he would know I had landed all right.
Finally, at four a.m., there was nothing left to be done. I picked up my bags, set them by the door, turned and embraced my wife. As I held her in my arms, I could feel her tears flooding my cheek.
"Now, please, don't worry," I whispered.
She looked at me through puffy, reddened eyes and nodded uncertainly.
"Next year in Washington," I joked feebly. "We made a good plan."
And then it was time to go. As I walked down to the car, I could hear my thirteen-year-old boy Zayd crying just inside the door. "Is Daddy really going away?" he said.
I couldn't turn around.
Outside, in the tropical heat, the street was deathly quiet. On the eastern horizon, a thin red line hinted at the baking desert ahead. If we had left earlier the ride would have been more comfortable, but traveling at night also invited closer inspection at the roadblocks. The night guards are more wary, tending to inspect cars more closely, looking for army deserters or insurgents.
But first we had to get out of my neighborhood safely. We scanned the quiet street. No patrols. A sentry box was just out of sight, at the corner of the main boulevard, near the houses of Saddam and the deputy prime minister. We piled into the car, drove quietly in the opposite direction, and with a few turns through the palm-laced streets, we were out of the neighborhood. By the time the sun splintered over the horizon, we were clearing the outskirts of Baghdad, safely on the road, we hoped, to freedom.
Behind us was the most prominent symbol of Saddam's long and hideous rule: two huge, cast-iron forearms rising from the ground with crossed swords in their hands. Beneath them, in ghastly piles, were the helmets of thousands of Iranian soldiers killed in the Iran-Iraq war. As we drove off, the tips of the swords were visible above the rooftops, reminding us all of the death and destruction of so many years.
It never should have happened. I was happily becoming an American. Then the order came: Come back to Iraq, or else.
I'd enjoyed the dream of many Iraqi students in the 1960s by coming to America for college, in this case a master's degree at MIT, followed by a Ph.D. in theoretical nuclear physics at Florida State University (which had just acquired an accelerator and was attracting a lot of students). In those halcyon years before Saddam came to power, Iraq and the United States were on fairly friendly terms. I was teaching at a small college in Georgia, perfectly acclimated to the land of hamburgers and wide highways, weekend dates and barbecues.
Then the roof fell in. Baghdad wanted something back for the scholarship money it had advanced. They wanted it in trade, by my taking a post at Atomic Energy (AE), and they hinted none too lightly that my father, who had cosigned the loan, would be held responsible until I came back.
When I returned in 1970, I was resigned to my predicament. I actually began bubbling with ideas and enthusiasm for the peaceful development of nuclear energy. In 1971, I was made chairman of the physics department at Atomic Energy, leapfrogging over many more senior colleagues. Later, I was put in charge of the computer committee, and purchased Iraq's first mainframe from IBM. I also established a popular newsletter about the AEC, and then took charge of all its reports and publications. I was also on the board of the Iraqi Physics and Math Society, participating in panels on the introduction of modern math in the school curricula, and teaching graduate courses at a couple of universities. All in all, much to my surprise, I was having fun, making a good living, and along the way becoming perhaps Iraq's best-known scientist.
Then they tightened the vise. Two senior appointees of Saddam, then Iraq's fast-rising vice president, came to me with his instructions to lay the groundwork for an atomic bomb. Even though they framed their request in the most innocuous terms, my shock must have registered.
"We understand it can't be done overnight," one said soothingly. "In fact, we don't have any completion date for an actual bomb in mind. We just want you to begin laying down the scientific and technological foundation for a project sometime in the future."
The two officials offered other reasons to go forward with the program. First, Saddam wanted it. That alone was a sufficient reason to end the conversation right there. But the officials also warned that without Saddam's backing, funds for all atomic energy programs would dry up, from research to nuclear medicine. I had to play along, they said, to keep the money flowing. Besides, they reassured me, making an atomic bomb would take twenty, thirty years. By the time we had a testable device, the entire situation could have changed. Who could predict that Saddam would still be around?
So we began. We dragged our feet from day one, taking more than a month alone just to craft our proposal. It promised only the creation of an infrastructure for a broad atomic energy program that could not conceivably develop a bomb for at least twenty years.
But we had underestimated Saddam. Armed with our blueprint, he quickly took over the atomic program, making himself chairman and replacing the top officials. Once in control, he stepped back and began pouring money into the effort.
For a time, however, it still didn't seem too bad. The only unsettling facet of his control was the introduction of heavy security at AE, and even then he went to great lengths to rationalize it to us. After all the money he had poured into the program, we were in a forgiving mood.
But after Saddam became president in 1979, things changed. No longer satisfied with our leisurely pace, he began demanding concrete results. It was only later that we learned the reason: Saddam was planning to attack Iran, a country with four times the population of Iraq. If things went badly, he wanted the ultimate equalizer, a bomb that could vaporize an invading army or obliterate Teheran. And in the larger picture, he yearned for the same respect Israel got from its nuclear bombs.
Saddam reacted poorly to delay. Some of my colleagues were sent to jail to refresh their enthusiasm for the bomb. I was spared, probably because there was no one to replace me as head of the nuclear fuel division, where we planned to manufacture plutonium. But I nearly felt the ax. When I saw problems in our contract for the French-supplied reactor and refused to sign off on it, Saddam seethed with rage. Interpreting my action as an attempt to distance myself from responsibility, he immediately promoted to the position of personal adviser two scientists who did approve the contract.
They would soon enough regret it. In December 1979, the bespectacled Dr. Hussein al-Shahristani, an expert in neutron activation, made the mistake of challenging the bomb program to Saddam's face. He was immediately jailed and savagely tortured. Saddam's other science adviser, a willowy genius named Jaffar Dhia Jaffar, beseeched the president to relent on his gifted colleague. He, too, was arrested. To give him a taste of what could come, Jaffar was strapped to a dungeon wall and forced to watch as other men were tortured. He recanted and returned to work.
I became his assistant. Needless to say, I was frightened. And my fear grew when Saddam named me his personal nuclear adviser and ordered me to design and build the bomb -- and fast. What an ironic reward, I often thought, for someone who had balked at dissecting a laboratory frog, who had shied away from hunting trips with my father.
Now I knew I had to get out. My application for a routine exit visa for my family was turned down, and for a time the security services placed me under tight surveillance. Eventually, I convinced the regime I was loyal, but when the intense scrutiny eased I began to think about an escape.
In 1990, I persuaded Saddam's erratic son-in-law Hussein Kamel to let me teach again and back off from the program into a role as a consultant. With Desert Storm looming, the crash program to build the bomb had been shelved, so I had little reason to fear the dungeons. I was still, moreover, the regime's ace in the hole. I knew how far the program had progressed. I knew where all the secret components of the program were. The calamity in Kuwait had forced the bomb program underground, but it was still creeping forward. Perhaps Saddam thought he could wait things out and then order me back into the program. Or maybe he didn't have any better ideas. But it was time for me to run.
We were headed north, the first step in a journey to freedom for those who couldn't get permission to travel -- virtually anyone of consequence. Under the so-called Operation Provide Comfort, the Allies had established a protected zone in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq, flying constant air patrols to ward off Saddam's helicopters and troops. Meanwhile, exile opposition groups, under the umbrella of the Iraqi National Congress, took advantage of the situation to establish a frontline headquarters. It was headed by Dr. Ahmad al-Chalabi, whom I'd known when we were students at MIT in the 1960s. I was counting on al-Chalabi remembering me.
The road to Mosul, capital of the Arabic north, was dusty and crumbling. For such a major thruway to be in such disrepair was a sign of the regime's twisted priorities. With billions spent on weapons, there was no money to maintain such basic services as roads. Nor were there any trees along the blistering hot highway: Most of them had been chopped down to eliminate the chance of an ambush on Saddam's motorcade. In 1982, at Dujail, fifty miles north of Baghdad, gunmen were foolish enough to fire on Saddam and miss. The town was subsequently bulldozed, every male executed, and every woman and child thrown in jail.
All things considered, we were in a pretty jovial mood as we sped up the highway. Adnan was telling tall tales about Saddam and his family, most of which I knew were untrue. But I let him ramble, not wanting to provoke a man who held my life in his hands. Conversely, I thought, he was watching me for any hint that I was losing my nerve. I knew he'd drop me in a second if I jeopardized his safety.
It had been difficult enough to convince Adnan of my bona fides. Since Firas had introduced us three months earlier, Adnan had been studying me carefully, coming to our house for food and drink, talking about everything under the sun without committing himself to an escape, much less a departure date. He could not comprehend why a man of my position and affluence would want to leave Iraq. The people he took out were usually hardship cases, people in imminent danger or serious distress. A comfortable senior official like me spelled trouble. What finally tipped the scales in my favor was my relationship with Ali. Adnan knew him well and our close friendship ultimately convinced Adnan to help me.
I was heartened by Adnan's extraordinary caution. Betrayal by close friends and colleagues was routine in Iraq. People sometimes turned in friends out of fear they were being tested. Everyone knew the story of Amal al-Mudarris, probably the best-known personality on Baghdad radio, a woman who had covered the news in an especially clear and cultured voice that endeared her to the educated elite. Her insistence on presenting the news objectively won her a wide following, especially among those of us who were aware of the depth of Saddam's lies and repression.
Her demise was instructive. Saddam's wife, Sajida, began calling her with complaints that she wasn't covering newsworthy events -- mostly those extolling her husband, of course. The calls became more frequent, annoying, even crude. One day al-Mudarris, talking with some longtime friends at the station, remarked that Sajida was unfit to be Iraq's first lady. One of her colleagues slipped away from the table and called her husband at the Ministry of Information. A few minutes later the station was surrounded, and security officers hauled al-Mudarris away. After a round of torture, she confessed to what she had said and was sentenced to death. After she was hanged, her tongue was cut out and delivered to her family.
Even a wife could not be trusted, a point Saddam himself made on television one day. A woman had reported that her husband had become so angry at the sight of Saddam's face on TV that he had cursed the image and tossed something through the screen. Saddam praised the woman for informing on her husband, and reminded his viewers that insulting the presidency, even in the privacy of one's own home, was a crime punishable by death.
When he failed to announce a draconian sentence, many people were impressed by his restraint. But a friend later told me what happened. The husband was arrested on Saddam's orders and beaten within an inch of his life. Since he was no longer of any use to his wife, they cut off his genitals and watched him bleed to death. A few days later his body and severed genitals were delivered to his brothers.
I thoroughly understood, therefore, Adnan's caution.
So far the trip was uneventful. A carload of men heading to Mosul, a popular resort, was commonplace and we were waved through the checkpoints routinely. After we passed the exit for Tikrit, Saddam's birthplace, the condition of the highway deteriorated sharply. We might as well have been driving through Afghanistan. The evidence of deprivation was everywhere.
Wedged into a Volkswagen Passat for over four hours, we all sighed with relief when we finally reached Mosul as the sun was beginning to burn. With its famous minarets and expansive houses, Mosul was once the major trading city in the north, a hub between Iraq and its neighbors Turkey and Syria. But Saddam, years of war, and Mosul's proximity to the troubled Kurdish north had turned it into a seedy Iraqi Casablanca, home to smugglers and spies, a magnet for Saddam's security forces and army.
It was time for a second breakfast. Because of the ubiquity of Saddam's agents, we decided to avoid the better restaurants, where they hung out. Instead, we went to a student cafe and managed to find a table in the smoky dining room. The waiter was unshaven and indifferent, dropping a handful of pita bread on the table and asking what we wanted. We all ordered kabob, Mosul's famous dish, which I'd enjoyed on previous visits. This time, though, the food had little appeal. In the back of all our minds were the three remaining highway checkpoints ahead. If we were picked up, this would be one of our last meals.
There was also the question of the smuggler to whom we'd be handed over shortly. By reputation, smugglers were treacherous. Stories about them killing their charges and taking their money were common. But our safety was linked to Adnan's, and his to ours. He knew his own life depended on making sure he left me in reliable hands. Simply put, if I were betrayed, he knew that my family would make sure he paid with his life. It was a code a Kurd understood.
My son and Ali registered for a cabin on the outskirts of town and then slipped me in later. Then we waited while Adnan located his man. For two days, we talked, read, paced, and played cards. Firas was getting nervous, worried the smugglers would find out who I was and refuse to help, or worse. But Adnan would not be rushed. Finally, early on the morning of August 18, we were told to get ready.
I turned to my son. "There is nothing more you can do now. Not for me," I said. "But you are your mother's and your two brothers' protector now. You are the man of the family. Until I arrange to bring you out."
Firas nodded, but he was very tense. He now faced the immense reach of Saddam's police state alone if the security service ever suspected something was wrong. Once inside Saddam's torture centers, he would tell the truth. The only question would be how long he could hold out. But we'd known this for a long time. With a brief embrace and pat on the back, I left.
The smuggler kept Adnan, Ali, and me waiting in an auto repair shop until noon, then sent us a message to move to another location. We did, and waited again. After a flurry of telephone calls from Adnan, the smuggler then ordered another change of location. Finally, late in the day, he came to fetch us.
Our man was in his early twenties, with a filthy face and ragged clothes that made him look like a Baghdad street beggar. I looked at his truck, a battered old white Toyota pickup. My heart sank.
He apologized for the delay. The dreaded Special Security Organization, the SSO, Saddam's elite security force, had been swarming the checkpoints all day looking for Kurdish infiltrators. He'd waited for the normal patrols to take over before picking us up.
He sounded shrewd, I decided. His appearance was probably a good idea, too, but now I was concerned about going into the mountains in such a wreck.
"Don't worry," he said with a laugh, patting the Toyota's fender. "It's very good, a very good truck." So we drove off, on the final and most dangerous leg of our journey.
The road to Kurdistan was a two-lane obstacle course of cracked cement, packed dirt, potholes, and random rocks. As we climbed slowly through the timeworn hills, our young guide went over the rules. The Kurdish region was a lucrative source of hard currency for Saddam's family. His son Uday received kickbacks from the black market in food and merchandise coming down from Turkey and oil and gas going out -- all of it busting the U.N. embargo. The traffic in political refugees was less official. The border guards shook down the smugglers and gave a cut to their commanders, who were rumored to be making ten thousand dollars or more a month from the trade.
The real problem was the intermittent presence of the SSO, he said. If we were stopped by them we were doomed. Mostly, however, they were scouting for rogue corruption. If we looked nervous, the regular guards might be spooked into thinking we were part of an SSO sting. It was the worst possible mistake, our smuggler warned. It would tip the guards that something was awry, presenting us with three alternatives, all of them bad: They'd either demand all of our money, or arrest us, or both.
My stomach tightened as we approached our first checkpoint, a wooden booth where the guards raised their hands for us to stop. As they approached, we sat silently. It turned out to be a false alarm. Our man knew the guards, and quickly produced a portable radio as a gift. "Does it work?" one of them asked, laughing. Assuring them that it did, we were quickly waved through.
The second checkpoint also went smoothly. But instead of a radio, the smuggler handed over a paper bag -- "Lunch," he said. The guard looked inside and then smiled. There was also a wad of cash. With a friendly wave, we were through.
That left the most dangerous part of the journey, the last checkpoint before the border, a stretch of highway often patrolled by the SSO. Our man visibly tensed. Special precautions were demanded. As we chugged up the mountain, creeping slowly around the hairpin curves, we were met twice by other trucks whose drivers waved us forward. If the SSO had been on patrol, they would have told us to turn back.
About an hour later, we reached the frontier. The roadblock with the Iraqi tricolor flag flying on a pole was ahead. It was an army post. Soldiers were everywhere. I took a deep breath.
As we pulled to a stop, a sergeant and two soldiers approached us. After months on top of a windblown, inhospitable mountain, they looked irritable and bored, and my heart began to pound. But their only interest, as at the other stops, was in whether we had any supplies for them. Our driver pointed to the back of the truck and the soldiers unloaded some boxes. Then he got out of the truck, took the sergeant aside, and discreetly handed him two hundred dollars' worth of Iraqi dinars.
The camp went about its business as if we weren't even there. I glanced out the window at the landscape around me. Something strange had happened to the mountains. As a young man, I had vacationed here and remembered the forested hills. But now the mountainsides were barren and scorched black. Every tree and shrub of these once verdant and beautiful peaks was gone.
Saddam's army had done this -- dumped chemical weapons on the hills, not just to erase any cover for Kurdish guerrillas, but to snuff out any potential whatsoever for life. They'd burned down the entire mountain range. The heartlessness of the whole operation, and the deprivation it caused the local Kurds, was a story I would hear again in the coming weeks.
Finally, we pulled out of the camp and started over the crest of the hill. I grew excited, but our smuggler cautioned me to stay alert. The SSO was known to lurk on the other side of the mountain, he said, and the word going around was that they were under pressure because of the recent defection of Wafiq al-Samarrai, Saddam's close confidant and chief of military intelligence. Apparently, it had come as a huge shock to the regime. So we crept forward, our nerves jangling, perhaps even more so now that our freedom was so near.
Then, suddenly, the goal line was in sight. A huge valley spread out below us. Far below was a wide, shallow stream. On the other side, men were loading and unloading trucks. We drove down the mountain, and in a short while we were finally there. The driver pulled to a stop at the water's edge and turned off the engine.
The silence was eerie after the long drive. The dust blew by us. The only sounds were the bubble of the stream and the soft chatter of the Kurds, unloading cans of gasoline. Armed men stood on the hillside above.
I opened the Toyota's creaky door and stepped slowly from the rusty cab. I walked forward to the water's edge, fell to my knees, and scooped up handfuls of water from the rippling stream. I splashed my face, neck, and arms. Never had water felt so fresh.
I'd made it.
"Are you all right?" Ali asked me, grinning at my obvious elation.
"Yes, I'm all right!" I smiled. "Fine. Excellent. Absolutely excellent."
We forded the stream together. On the other side, I started to offer my thanks to our guide.
"The dinar," he said.
The half bill, of course! The signal for Firas. I reached for my wallet, found the precious note, and signed the code word on the back. I handed it to the smuggler.
"I'll make sure it gets there," he said. We shook hands and he was gone.
Ali and I rested that night in a small village a few miles into the Kurdish mountains. Adnan had given me the name of the local sheik, who welcomed us warmly into his hut. I lay back on a pillow and smiled. The cool mountain air was a welcome change after our long, hot day. It was hard to believe I was out of Saddam's control.
Dinner was simple fare -- rice, bread, and vegetables cooked with bits of lamb -- but it seemed like a feast. As we ate, some of the stress I'd carried with me all day began to dissolve. But I could not really relax with my family left behind. As long as they were trapped in Baghdad, they were in danger. If my whereabouts became known, they would die. With Saddam's spies infesting this part of the world, from now on I had to be extremely careful of what I said and to whom.
Meanwhile, the tribal sheik and his villagers were full of surprises. After dinner they began complaining about their Kurdish leaders, who were hoarding aid from the Allies, they said. And they expressed a grudging admiration for Saddam. Any man who could do so much damage must be unusual, very brave, they said.
"After all," the sheik asked me with a mischievous smile, "aren't you yourself running away from him?" The villagers laughed.
Saddam had bombed and strafed the Kurds, burned their villages, and dumped chemical weapons on them. And they admired him!
But it was classic Kurdish thinking. The tribes had always ruled through a system of sheiks and their enforcers. They admired men who ruled by steel. That was their history. Why wouldn't they admire a man who was the toughest sheik of all?
Somehow we managed to avoid a confrontation. The next day, the sheik arranged for a car, driver, and security passes to get us through the next Kurdish checkpoints -- for a fee, of course. By the end of the day we'd arrived in Arbil, the capital of the Kurdish north.
Iraqis often call Arbil the world's oldest city, although Jericho probably deserves the distinction. But Arbil is indeed ancient. In 300 B.C., Alexander the Great defeated the Persians there, and a hill in the center of the city still shows some of the old ruins. Unfortunately, the rest of the city hardly looks much newer.
In the mountains outside Arbil is the "new" town of Salahiddin, which was the base of the Iraqi opposition. We found our way to a modest yellow-brick building that served as headquarters for the Iraqi National Accord, founded by two disaffected members of Saddam's ruling Baathist Party. It was where Ali's brother Tariq worked.
Tariq invited us to dinner that evening with the local head of the Accord and other officials. It was a frustrating evening. From conversation around the table, I concluded that nobody did any real work. The exiles spent most of their time gossiping about who was up and who was down and who did what to whom. Many seemed homesick and had given up on the possibility of toppling Saddam. Worse, many had concluded that they had been tricked and abandoned by the Allies, especially the United States.
Three years after the Gulf War ended, Saddam seemed as entrenched as ever. At best, it was a stalemate, with thousands of Iraqis stranded among the Kurds and spending their days bitching among themselves. At worst, Saddam was preparing a new arsenal of weapons -- chemical, biological, and nuclear -- right under the noses of the hapless United Nations. And here in Salahiddin, the Allies seemed little interested in what the exiles had to say. Where were the Americans?
I got the impression that far from being real political forces, the two main opposition groups -- the Accord and the Iraqi National Congress -- were principally engaged as employment agencies. A refugee registered and was put on a pay plan. But fresh cash arrived only sporadically from the United States, and some people never got paid. Everyone worried about what they would do when the Americans got bored and stopped paying altogether. Everyone was searching for a way out. A lucky few got visas, while others arranged to be smuggled into Europe, where they registered as political refugees. But most, it seemed to me, were just sitting and rotting.
The local administrator of the Iraqi National Accord was an amiable man in his late fifties, who had been a leader of the Shiite uprising in the Iraqi south at the end of Desert Storm. When the revolt was crushed, he drove his family to the Saudi border, ditched the car, and joined the thousands of other Iraqis herded into refugee camps by U.S. forces. After several months he reached the United States, but quickly found life in the suburbs lonely and boring. Even his sons were too busy to talk to him. After much hand-wringing, he contacted the opposition groups and managed to land a job back in the sand-blown mountains of northern Iraq. He was happier than ever, he said, with a new young wife and a new baby. But he was also one of the lucky few, I thought. He had a home in the United States if things didn't go well.
To my dismay, I quickly learned that attracting the attention of U.S. officials was next to impossible. There were private U.S. relief workers everywhere, but they were useless to me. I didn't need food; I needed a discreet contact, someone who could instantly recognize and understand the urgency and significance of what I had to say: the CIA.
There was an Allied military intelligence unit near the Turkish border, Ali told me, but to talk to them you had to stand in a long line and first speak with a bored clerk who was unlikely to do much more than thank you for stopping by. The only likely way to reach the Americans was through the Iraqi National Congress. My old MIT classmate Ahmad al-Chalabi, I learned, was the CIA's man up here.
The fact was, I did not know if al-Chalabi would remember me from our student days at MIT. Thirty years had passed, and we hadn't known each other all that well to begin with. I pondered what to say, especially since the cover story I'd been using was that I was just a lowly university professor trying to get out of Iraq. But I drove over there and took a chance.
Al-Chalabi's headquarters was a sprawling pair of large adjacent houses connected by jerry-built corridors. Antennae sprouted from one roof. The reception rooms seemed to function like coffee shops, with people sitting around gossiping. On the first floor of one of the houses were offices busy with computers and the production of INC publications, as well as al-Chalabi's personal administrative office.
I took a deep breath, walked in, introduced myself, and told the assistant that I wanted to see the boss. I had worked for the security services under Saddam's son-in-law, I said. At the presidential palace, I added for good measure. Mr. al-Chalabi and I had gone to college together in America.
The aide cautiously took my measure, then stood up and asked me to follow him.
At another office, we passed through a reception area crowded with more men sitting around drinking tea, smoking, and talking. The aide told me to wait and strode right past a protesting secretary, shutting the door behind him. A few minutes later he reappeared, and summoned me into the office.
Al-Chalabi greeted me cordially and motioned me to a chair. Portly now, with the jowls of middle age, we wouldn't have recognized each other on the street after all these years. Yes, he said, he was the same man who had studied mathematics at MIT in the early 1960s. He smiled. But he was very sorry, he did not remember me.
I started reminding him of our chats back then, about student life for a young Iraqi in Cambridge, and I could see him search his memory. He started to nod.
"Ah, yes," he finally said, "now I remember you."
His interest quickened. What did I do after I left MIT? he asked. After I mentioned my Ph.D. in nuclear physics at Florida State, his eyes narrowed. When I told him about being forced to return to Iraq and work at Atomic Energy in 1970, I hesitated. Sensing that I wanted to talk to him privately, he turned to his aides, clapped his hands, and pointed to the door, a signal for everybody to leave. When the door closed, he turned back to me, his eyes now somber.
Thirty years ago, few people would have predicted that al-Chalabi would have ended up in this forlorn city. His family had been one of the richest in Iraq, his father finance minister to the king. Then came the colonels' coup in 1958 that overthrew the monarchy. His father fled to Lebanon, where he opened a bank and prospered. Ahmed, his youngest son, was sent to MIT, and then on to the University of Chicago, where he earned his Ph.D. in mathematics.
He returned to the Middle East to join the family business and by 1977 had opened his own bank in Jordan. In 1989, however, a change in the Jordanian government brought a pro-Saddam prime minister to power, and the new regime moved to take control of his business. Al-Chalabi fled the country in a hail of charges that he'd looted the bank, but he insisted he'd left with only the family funds.
Then came Saddam's defeat in Kuwait. The fractured Iraqi opposition had a new lease on life and al-Chalabi stepped in to help lead it. It wasn't long before he had dealt himself to the top of the deck. The CIA made him their main man in the north.
Al-Chalabi's eyes widened noticeably when I offered a brief résumé of my role in the nuclear program. He understood that something valuable had just walked in his door, someone the Americans would want. He invited me to have dinner at his house.
Nobody knows how to put on a show of power like an Arab leader. When we stepped outside, a line of sport utility vehicles was waiting for us, engines running. An aide sprang forward to open a door, and we slipped inside. Then we sped off like a presidential motorcade, with cars of armed bodyguards bracketing our way. Outside his house it was the same. Armed guards filled the grounds.
But when we walked inside, all pretense disappeared. There seemed to be but one servant, who soon faded away.
Al-Chalabi said he ate only one meal a day, and from the looks of the dishes on the table, the cook wasn't taking any chances. It was the strangest combination of food I'd ever seen. There was a breakfast-style offering of honey, heavy cream, cheese, and eggs. But there were also plates of roasted turkey, chicken, lamb, and stews. Bowls of fruit were delivered, and sweets were placed strategically around the room.
Al-Chalabi wasn't hungry, so as I heaped food on my plate he dug for more details on the Iraqi bomb. It turned out that he knew my two former associates in the program -- al-Shahristani, who'd escaped to Iran during Desert Storm, and Jaffar, through family connections. It was obvious he wanted to make sure I knew what I was talking about. One of his responsibilities, he told me, was to screen defectors for the CIA. If I were an impostor, he'd be humiliated. But if I were the real thing, his stature with the Agency would soar, and in the cutthroat exile world, that was money in the bank.
What I didn't know was that he was already on shaky ground with the CIA.
After dinner, al-Chalabi excused himself and went upstairs. When he returned, he told me he had called the CIA on a satellite phone. He expected a return call shortly.
The servant brought tea, and we talked for a while about our lives and families, the latest Baghdad gossip, the deteriorating Iraqi economy. The uncertain future we both faced drifted like a bubble over the table. Then Ahmad crossed his arms on his ample chest and gave me some advice.
"You know," he said, "if they get what they want from you easily, they won't help you out with your family."
I looked at him evenly. He meant the CIA. But I could tell from the way he spoke that he was holding something back. And for my part, I knew this moment was a time to be careful. I could afford no missteps. If al-Chalabi was the Agency's man in Arbil, he could make me or break me. And I had to be made, because there was no going back. So I stalled with a sip of my tea, and then leaned forward attentively.
"They won't help you get out," he advised, "unless you hold back something good. You have to find a way to persuade them that they have to bring you into the country. Either that, or prepare to spend the rest of your days here. Because if you tell them everything on the phone, they'll wring you dry and leave you here. You can trust me on that."
Just make yourself a good deal, his eyes told me.
Then the satellite telephone rang, and Ahmad disappeared upstairs.
The moment I'd been planning for many years was finally at hand. In the next few minutes I could achieve the dream of getting myself and my family safely into the United States. An odd jumble of thoughts cascaded through my mind -- of my naïve thinking that we could fend off Saddam's drive for a bomb, of the horrible fate of my colleagues who had resisted him.
Now, thank God, all that was behind me.
Ahmad called from the top of the stairway, summoning me to the phone.
I rose from my chair, and began to make my way up the stairs.
Copyright © 2000 by Khidhir Hamza
The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon
The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon
In a white-knuckle thriller, Khidhir Hamza, who spent twenty years developing Iraq's atomic weapon, recounts his life in Saddam Hussein's inner circle and his daring flight to the West.
Taking readers into the darkest corners of a regime ruled by a volatile, brutal leader, Dr. Hamza, the only defector who has lived to write a firsthand portrait of Iraq, also presents an unprecedented portrait of Saddam -- his drunken rages, his women, his cold-blooded murder of underlings, and his unrivaled power. If pushed to the wall, Saddam will use the bomb that Dr. Hamza helped create.
From the relentless dangers Dr. Hamza endured in Iraq to his harrowing flight across three continents and his first encounter with skeptical CIA agents who turned him away, Saddam's Bombmaker is a true-to-life thriller as rich in danger, intrigue, and personal courage as a well-crafted spy novel.