How the US let al-Qaida get its hands on an Iraqi weapons factory
In an exclusive extract from his new book, A History of the World since 9/11, Dominic Streatfeild explains how despite expert warnings, the US let al-Qaida buy an arsenal of deadly weapons – then tried to cover it up
The Guardian, Friday 7 January 2011
Haki Mohammed and his brothers were shovelling manure on their farm in Yusifiyah in the spring of 2003 when the soldier arrived. Dishevelled and distressed, the man had run a great distance. "Please," he entreated, "are you true Arabs?"
The Iraqis, raised in a culture of obligatory hospitality towards needy strangers, immediately understood the subtext. The man needed help. Even had he not been a soldier (Haki thought he recognised the uniform of a Special Republican Guard), they were honour-bound to offer assistance. "Of course," Haki assured the man. "What is it you need?"
The soldier held out his AK-47. "Take it." He indicated the webbing around his waist, stuffed full of charged magazines. "Take them all. I don't want them. But I need a dishdasha or a robe. Anything that isn't a uniform." Then the soldier started to undress.
The Mohammeds were indeed good Arabs. They fetched a dishdasha and the man slipped it on. Then, without warning, he flung the ammunition and the rifle down and ran off into the desert. Bemused, the Yusifiyans examined his belongings. He wasn't a Republican Guard at all. His uniform, bereft of rank badges, was that of a rarer outfit: Manzaumat al-Amin, the Iraqi military's security and protection agency.
A small, nondescript town of a few thousand souls 25km south-west of Baghdad, Yusifiyah is known for its rich soil, which enables the production of potatoes famous throughout Iraq for their size and flavour. The singer Farouk al-Khatib was born here. But that's about it. For those uninterested in either potatoes or Iraqi popular music, there's little of interest: farms criss-crossed by irrigation ditches, a great deal of sand, and not much else.
Yusifiyah's obscurity, however, together with its convenient location – less than 30 minutes' drive from Baghdad airport – make it perfect for certain purposes: hiding things, for example. Things you'd rather no one ever knew about. Secret things.
Sure enough, 15km to the south lies a big, big secret. The secret dates back to 1977, when the then-president Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr ordered the construction of a vast munitions plant outside the town. Built by the Yugoslavs, the factory was originally to be named after Bakr himself, until Saddam Hussein seized power in 1979. In a fit of patriotic zeal, the fledgling dictator named it after the Iraqi general Qa'qaa ibn Umar, who in the seventh century inflicted a most glorious massacre on the Persian army in the second battle of Qasidiya: Al Qa'qaa.
Weapons inspectors who visited the facility were dumbstruck by the scale of the place. "Huge," comments one senior figure familiar with the site. "The biggest chemical plant I've ever seen." Covering an area of 36 square km, containing 1,100 buildings and employing more than 14,000 staff, the site was essentially a secret, self-sufficient city, 10 times the size of New York's Central Park – in the middle of the desert. It even had its own power station.
Saddam was so pleased with the facility that, when the Iran–Iraq war broke out in 1980, he built a number of other weapons factories nearby. Soon, Nahir Yusifiyah, the sparsely populated crescent-shaped region surrounding the town, was teeming with facilities engaged in the manufacture of free-fall aircraft bombs, small arms, ammunition, scud-missiles, as well as nuclear centrifuge development and bio-warfare experiments: all huge, clandestine weapons sites with their own research staff and agendas.
From the outside there was little to indicate what was going on in Qa'qaa. Surrounded by tall earthen walls, all that was visible was a series of chimney stacks producing huge plumes of acrid brown smoke. Employees in the facility were not allowed to speak about it; nobody else was allowed in. To Yusifiyans, however, it was obvious the plant made military equipment of some sort: repeated explosions emanated from within the walls when things went wrong, and from the facility's test ranges when things went right.
At the heart of this big, big secret lay further secrets, some so huge they bordered on the preposterous. In the late 80s, the facility was involved in the construction of the largest rifle in the history of the world: a monstrous weapon with a 150m barrel and the ability to shoot a 600kg projectile into space. The Supergun required 10 tonnes of propellant for each shot – doubtless the reason why research was underway at Qa'qaa, where the explosive material was to be made.
Unfortunately, even this state-of-the-art facility was not up to the task. At the end of the decade, suppliers were sought for a pair of compounds that the facility was unable to synthesise purely: RDX (the basis for a number of explosives, including C4) and PETN (used in small-calibre ammunition and Semtex). The materials, ordered from eastern Europe via Chile, arrived in shipments of hundreds of tonnes.
Then the project stalled. In 1991, following the Iraqi rout in Kuwait, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) gained access to Qa'qaa, where they found 145 tonnes of pure RDX and PETN. On a whim, one enterprising inspector asked technicians whether they had imported any other explosives of note. Qa'qaa staff exchanged glances and shuffled their feet, before leading him to a series of bunkers containing hundreds of drums of an off-white, crystalline powder. About as highly explosive as high explosive gets, High Melt Explosive (HMX) is used to detonate nuclear warheads. Qa'qaa had nearly 200 tonnes of it. The IAEA moved all the explosives to secure bunkers on the south-west corner of the facility, then closed the doors with tamper-proof seals. And there the 341 tonnes sat for more than a decade.
Of course, inhabitants of Yusifiyah and the surrounding towns had no idea about any of this. In Saddam's time, there were many things one didn't inquire about. But that was before the curious incident of the soldier, the rifle and the dishdasha....
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