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A man with a foot in multiple worlds

NBC’s Robert Windrem profiles Jafar Dhia Jafar, the J. Robert Oppenheimer of the Iraqi nuclear weapons program, a dapper, stridently nationalist combination of Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Strangelove.
/ Source: NBC News

Jafar Dhia Jafar, the top Iraqi nuclear scientist who turned himself in this week and is being interviewed by U.S. officials, is the scion of one of his country’s most powerful and durable families. In some ways, he is a cinematic figure: a combination of Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Strangelove who mixes Muslim fatalism, Arab nationalism, and modern technocracy.

THE GRANDSON of one of T. E. Lawrence’s comrades-in-arms and the founder of the modern Iraqi Army, al-Jafar was the father of the aborted Iraqi atomic bomb program. By 1991, al-Jafar’s empire included more than two dozen weapons plants, most of them clustered around Baghdad. He managed a legion of employees and remarkable laboratories that concentrated exclusively on fissile materials and their weaponization.

The whole enterprise had one goal, according to David Kay, the United Nation’s chief nuclear weapons inspector and now an NBC News analyst — the production of 15 to 20 nuclear weapons a year. Production of the first of these weapons, Kay and others believed, was as little as six months away when coalition bombers struck, and not more than 18 months.

And all of al-Jafar’s work was undertaken without once raising the suspicions of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which was charged with making certain Iraq lived up to its obligations as a signatory to the U.N. Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

“They certainly couldn’t have got as far as fast as they did without him,” said Kay, who spoke with al-Jafar and his associates on several occasions. “He was and is a very bright scientist as well as an inspirational leader of his team.”


Like other Iraqi officers and bureaucrats, al-Jafer wears a thick, neatly trimmed moustache in the manner of his leader. But there the similarity ends. He does not wear fatigues, nor even the shirt sleeves and open collar favored by scientists and engineers who must work in a climate renowned for its scorching heat. Al-Jafer’s taste runs to Italian-style haircuts and silk suits.

The Jafar family is part of a network of cosmopolitan Shiite families in Baghdad, with links to Iraq’s and other countries’ ruling elites that go back to the turn of the century. Jafar Jafar’s father, Dhia Jafar, was a favorite of Iraq’s King Faisal II, taking on a long series of assignments for him. The elder Jafar was in London on an official visit on July 14, 1958, when he learned that Faisal, his son the crown prince, and the prime minister were murdered in yet another coup. The family patriarch used connections to remain in England with his two sons, and later to send for his wife and young daughter.

Jafar went to the University of Birmingham for his baccalaureate and master’s degree in physics, and then completed a doctorate at Manchester before marrying a Briton and starting a family. His first job was as an associate researcher at the prestigious Institute for Nuclear Physics in London University’s Imperial College.

Jafar began to absorb the knowledge that would later be applied to his country’s most advanced weapons program. He visited CERN, the European nuclear research center in Geneva, and had a stint at Harwell, the British nuclear research center.


Jafar applied for a professorship at Imperial College early in 1975. Whatever his scientific virtues, however, he did not land the professorship. It was a fateful decision. Rebuffed by academe, Jafar decided to return with his family to the land of his birth.

His arrival in Baghdad in April 1975 coincided with the start of a government drive to recruit nuclear scientists. Some 4,000 scientists were attracted between 1974 and 1977, with Jafar being the biggest catch. For whatever reason — patriotism, wealth, power, nostalgia — the 33-year-old physicist became the willing instrument of the man behind the recruiting effort, Vice President Saddam Hussein.

His new job was with the Iraq Atomic Energy Commission, whose operations were about to expand with the construction of Osirak, a French-supplied 40-megawatt reactor that was to be the nucleus of the most ambitious atomic weapons program in the Arab world.

Osirak was well named. It stood for Osiris, the Egyptian god of the underworld, who myth had it was slain by his evil brother Set. In keeping with such treachery, Jafar recommended that Iraq agree to a French demand that it sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a condition of the reactor sale and then, if necessary, repudiate it once the facility was completed.

To figure out what Saddam had in mind for Osirak, all anyone needed to do was read an interview he had given in 1975 in which he stated explicitly that his country was engaged in “the first Arab attempt at nuclear arming.”

By 1979, Jafar became Vice Chairman of the Iraq Atomic Energy Commission and was responsible for dealing with the French on Osirak.

Jafar’s only equal in Iraq was another foreign-educated Shiite, Hussain al Sharistani, with whom he had worked at the Imperial College. While both men had much in common, including excellent educations, foreign-born wives, and an intense loyalty to Iraq, they differed profoundly in one major respect: religion. Jafar was secular. Sharistani, the nephew of a Shiite ayatollah and the friend of Iraq’s leading ayatollah, was intensely religious.

Sharistani was the commission’s Chief of Research and the scientific adviser to Iraq’s new president, Saddam Hussein. With oil revenues projected to be $60 billion over the next five years, and Osirak coming together, Jafar predicted to friends that a “great day” was about to dawn.


But then the Mossad got in the way. On April 7, 1979, only two days before a pair of reactor cores were to be shipped to Iraq, seven Israeli agents stole into a warehouse near Toulon and blew them up.

The Shah of Iran had been toppled in February 1979, followed by the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini and others intent on exporting their religion. Saddam, a Sunni, was deeply suspicious of the Shiite sect. He ordered increasingly brutal reprisals against Iraqi Shiites and had Sharistani arrested in his office. The rumors sounded unlikely — that the scientist helped the Israelis destroy the reactor cores in France and even planned the destruction of Osirak itself — but Sharistani was tortured for 22 consecutive days and, after a brief appearance at a military hospital in January 1980, was not seen for 11 years until he escaped in the chaos at the end of the first Gulf War. He now lives in Iran.

Jafar’s attempt to get Sharistani released landed him in prison, too. According to the lore of the time, Barzan al-Tikriti, Saddam’s stepbrother and then chief of the secret police, separately offered the two men a choice: continued imprisonment or a return to the country’s nuclear weapons program.

Jafar capitulated, and in doing so became the chief of his nation’s nuclear weapons program. Jafar may not have been good enough to teach nuclear physics at the Imperial College, but he would be good enough to make his country a power that would eclipse the United Kingdom itself.

But he would have to use unconventional means to get there. On June 7, 1981, Israeli warplanes dropped 2,000-pound bombs on Osirak, scoring enough direct hits to knock out the reactor. The surprise attack left the smashed core entombed in a mound of concrete rubble and Saddam Hussein’s dream temporarily entombed with it.

Two weeks later, Saddam wrathfully told his cabinet that pursuit of nuclear weapons had not ended with the destruction of Osirak.

Jafar brought a degree of energy to the task that amounted to fanaticism. He recruited gifted high school and university students with a compelling inducement: deferments from the war with Iran and large salaries after graduation. He sent thousands of the young military scientists to school abroad, mainly in England. Jafar quickly became the young Iraqis’ father figure — the disciplinarian totally dedicated to their nation’s taking its rightful place among the real powers of the world.

Whatever his charges believed, however, their education was not free. Every scientist and engineer who studied in the West or participated in a conference there understood that defection or passing information to a hostile intelligence service would bring deadly reprisal not only to the transgressor but to his family.


By 1982, with Jafar still in charge, a special committee developed a far-reaching master plan to build an Iraqi A-bomb.

Without Osirak, Iraq could not obtain plutonium in large enough quantities to fuel a bomb. That meant Iraq would have to build large and secret facilities where natural uranium would be enriched to bomb grade — a major violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Iraq would not only not renounce the NPT, Jafar decided, but would seem to embrace it. Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency would be welcomed twice a year for tours of Tuwaitha. Iraq would look like a good citizen to the IAEA and get the bomb at the same time.

The core of the Iraqi plan was to set up a secret Iraqi Manhattan Project whose goal was nothing short of establishing an indigenous capability to build not only nuclear weapons but the entire research and development support structure that went with them.

The nuclear weapons program required a clandestine logistical effort of immense proportion. Highly specialized equipment, from computers to nuclear triggers, high-temperature furnaces and electron-beam welders was imported overtly or otherwise — sometimes in pieces. Architects and construction firms designed and built hundreds of specialized buildings at secret locations. Ever mindful of what had happened to Osirak, Jafar and his colleagues came up with a security plan that included building a twin of every critical facility and separating the two by as many miles as possible.

The facility most critical to the nuclear weapons program was at Al Furat, south of Baghdad. There, Iraqi scientists built a workshop for design and fabrication of centrifuges, which offer the most efficient, least expensive way to enrich uranium. According to the plan, thousands of centrifuges would lead to an atomic bomb assembly line just like Israel’s, which can produce 20 bombs or warheads a year.


After the end of the first Gulf War, journalists and intelligence analysts believed that most of Saddam’s nuclear weapons program had been built by Western companies and technicians who had sold out to the Iraqis. The duplicity was certainly staggering — private or state companies in Brazil, France, Germany, Great Britain, the United States, and Yugoslavia, among others, thought of the Iraqis the way city slickers think of country bumpkins whose pockets are stuffed with money and who are out for a good time.

Yet the reporters and analysts missed the most startling, and in the long run most ominous, aspect of the Iraqi nuclear program: how much the Arabs had managed to accomplish on their own. Jafar, together with his counterparts in Tehran, Tel Aviv and Islamabad, had shown that increasingly free trade had opened the way, not only for more equipment and material to cross borders, but for ideas to cross them as well.

But in the end, his work came to naught.

After the Iraqi defeat in the first Gulf War, Jafar was personally assigned to deal with the U.N. and he watched as his sophisticated labs were discovered by U.N. inspectors and then destroyed. But getting rid of the weapons facilities did not necessarily end Saddam’s nuclear weapons program.

U.N. arms inspector Kay recalls his final lunch with Jafar. “You can bomb our buildings. You can destroy our technology,” Jafar told Kay. “But you cannot take it out of our heads. We now have the capability.” Excerpted from “Critical Mass: The Dangerous Race for Superweapons in a Fragmenting World” by Robert Windrem and William E. Burros (Simon & Schuster, 1994). Robert Windrem is an investigative producer for NBC News.