AQ Khan and Nuclear Bomb : Part II : Aslam Beg and Iraq’s Kuwait Invasion

But since [General Aslam] Beg did not care where Pakistan’s money or political patronage came from, he simultaneously reached out to Saddam Hussein in Iraq, authorizing a KRL [Khan Research Laboratories] agent to approach Baghdad just as the UN Security Council authorized the use of “all means necessary” to eject Iraq from Kuwait and a US-led coalition prepared to insert ground forces into Kuwait to repel Saddam’s army. Beg’s man offered the Iraqi secret service something special, a nuclear bomb. The Iraqi nuclear weapons program—code-named PC-3—had been all but destroyed by Israel’s attack on the Osirak reactor in 1981, and for the following decade, against a backdrop of censure from the international community, Saddam and his scientists had struggled to rebuild it. But here was pragmatic and impoverished Pakistan offering Saddam the whole package, a complete product or the blueprints to manufacture one (along with advice and drawings on the creation of a uranium enrichment plant). PAEC in Islamabad would machine the former, and the latter would come from A. Q. Khan at Kahuta, who planned to recycle bomb designs given to him by China in the 1980s.

If intelligence about this offer had filtered out at the time it would have radically transformed the approach to the Gulf War, as no US president would have willingly put thousands of American troops into a maverick state armed with a nuclear weapon. However, another five years would pass before the West glimpsed the Pakistan–Iraq deal, after IAEA inspectors raided a farm outside Baghdad belonging to General Hussein Kamel, Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law, who, as director of the Military Industrialization Authority, had been in charge of the country country’s weapons program. Briton Gary Dillon, who led this inspection team, recalled how they recovered boxes of documents, among which was a tantalizing reference to the offer made by Pakistan. Dillon’s team was so shocked by the contents of the one-page memo that for some time they presumed it was a fake. Headed “Top-Secret Proposal,” it referred to something with the code name “Project A/B.” Dillon said: “The memo appeared to be from the Mukhabarat, the Iraqi intelligence service, and dated 6 October 1990 it was an account of a meeting that had taken place in the offices of the Technical Consultation Corporation, a procurement organization used by the Mukhabarat.” Addressed to an unnamed link man in PC-3, it reported: “We have enclosed for you the following proposal from the Pakistani scientist Dr. Abd-el-Qadeer Khan [sic] regarding the possibility of helping Iraq establish a project to enrich uranium and manufacture a nuclear weapon.” On offer were project designs for a bomb, with the necessary components supplied by European companies operating through the nexus of Dubai. The report noted that a meeting could not be arranged with Khan himself, due to the chaos surrounding the invasion of Kuwait, so instead a rendezvous was proposed with a trusted intermediary in Greece. As to Pakistan’s motives, the Mukha-barat was clear: money.

Poring over the documents, Dillon’s team found a second reference to Pakistan, something that resembled the offer KRL had made to Iran in 1987. It was a menu of items for sale, with a request by Pakistan’s intermediary for an initial fee of $5 million, with 10 percent commission payable by Iraq on every purchase. Dillon recalled: “We also discovered a response from PC-3 to the Mukhabarat that warned of their fears of a possible sting operation. Iraq’s nuclear specialists were unsure.” It was such an extraordinary offer, someone proposing to sell a nuclear bomb to a malignant Arab state, that even an adventurist like Saddam was skeptical. But then, he had seen what the forces pitted against his nuclear plans were capable of—like the undercover Mossad hit men who had killed one of his top scientists in a hotel room in Paris.

Dillon said: “Hedging their bets, PC-3 suggested that Iraq obtain samples from Pakistan before agreeing to go-ahead.” But there the paper trail ended. Dillon later tracked around the world to identify the parties involved and traced an Iraqi who had participated in the negotiations to Australia, where he was living as a refugee. “He refused to discuss the Iraqi nuclear project,” Dillon recalled. “He said, ‘I know my rights and if you pursue this I will disappear and you will never be able to find me.’ We registered our extreme concern at the IAEA and I tried to prick the US interest too, but no one in Washington wanted to talk about it or share any intelligence.” Dillon scrutinized the documents. “I believed that they were an accurate representation of what Pakistan had put on the table—although we could never know for sure. As for the overall code name, Project A/B, I puzzled over this for some time until I realized what the letters stood for: Atom Bomb. The truth is often far simpler than one thinks.”

There was a morbid conclusion to the uncovering of the Iraqi bomb-for-sale plot. Dillon explained: “We had been led to the farm where we found the Pakistani bomb proposal by General Hussein Kamel and his brother, Colonel Saddam Kamel, after they had defected to Jordan on 8 August 1995, bringing with them their wives, Saddam’s daughters Rana and Raghad, and Saddam’s nine grandchildren.” Saddam would never forget the treachery, and the following February he lured the Kamel brothers back to Baghdad, only to have them and many of their in-laws shot dead in their own home.

The cash deal with Iraq faltered, but General Beg worked hard to get the Islamabad–Baghdad relationship on track. As US troops entered Kuwait in February 1991, General Beg called on prime minister Sharif and, without mentioning the Mukhabarat negotiations, reasoned that Pakistan should stand beside Saddam Hussein. Sharif was startled. He recalled: “Pakistan had already pledged to be part of an Islamic coalition formed to defend the Middle East against Saddam and we had offered to send soldiers to Saudi Arabia. I had been touring Arab states pulling the coalition together. Saddam had occupied an Islamic state, Kuwait, and was threatening to attack our sponsors, Saudi Arabia. I said to Beg, ‘No, we won’t support Saddam.’ He left disgruntled and no doubt sowed dissent in the military against me.”

Excerpted from “Shopping for Bombs: Nuclear Proliferation, Global Insecurity, and the Rise and Fall of the A.Q. Khan Network

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