Saddam's Bombmaker is the memoir of Khidhir Hamza, the US-educated Iraqi physicist who was ordered to build an atomic bomb by Saddam Hussein, but who escaped the dictator's clutches and defected back to America in 1994. The book features lurid gossip from inside the court of Iraq's preposterous tyrant, exasperated recollection of the ineptitude of western intelligence services, and depressing insights into what governments that should know better are willing to sell to anyone with a suitcase full of money. In 1974, when Saddam was vice-chairman of the Ba'ath party's Revolutionary Command Council, Hamza negotiated the purchase of a nuclear reactor from the government of France. Apparently, the French never asked themselves why Iraq, heir to some of the most bountiful oil reserves on earth, might want such a thing.
Since the book's original publication in 2000, events have conspired to lend Saddam's Bombmaker a potentially crucial significance: as the US makes its case for a re-run of Operation Desert Storm, Hamza's testimony is as damning an indictment as the most determined hawk could wish for. The crucial content is not the anecdotal examples of Saddam's personal depravity - none of which will be news to any Saddam watcher outside Iraq - but the outlining of Saddam's ambition to possess nuclear weapons, and the steps Iraq has taken in that direction. Hamza also discusses the chemical and biological weapons that Iraq already possesses.
All of which rather begs the question of why President George W. Bush is not posting copies of Saddam's Bombmaker to all the foreign heads of state whose names he can remember; and why Hamza has not become a 21st-century Harriet Beecher Stowe. The reason may be that, as the cover blurb boasts, Saddam's Bombmaker has much in common with "a well-crafted spy novel". Among those who have suggested that the emphasis should be placed on the noun rather than the adjective are former UN weapons inspectors Scott Ritter and David Albright. The latter, once an ally of Hamza, has said that Saddam's Bombmaker is "full of technical inaccuracies" and that Hamza "exaggerated his own importance". Engrossing though the book is, any reader who is neither a nuclear scientist nor a former confidante of Saddam, is going to have to take Hamza's word for an awful lot.
Saddam's Bombmaker closes with a warning that "Saddam must be kept in a box, or better still, removed". It is an entirely reasonable warning, especially if Iraq is half as fearsomely armed as this book claims. In the epilogue, Hamza suggests that the best way to contain Saddam is to encourage, with whatever inducements are necessary, the desertion and defection of his scientists and technicians. Whatever the truth of the rest of Hamza's extraordinary tale, this scheme makes more sense than launching a full-scale war over Iraq's weapons of mass destruction- a war that would surely make the deployment of those weapons more likely, not less.
Andrew Mueller is a freelance journalist who has reported on Iraq.
Author - Khidhir Hamza with Jeff Stein
ISBN - 0 684 87386 9 and 0 7432 1135 9
Publisher - Simon and Schuster
Price - £17.99 and £10.00
Pages - 352