TRIBUNE-REVIEW Wednesday, April 9, 2003
SOUTH OF BAGHDAD — In a valley sculpted by man, between the palms and roses, lies a vast marble and steel city known as Al-Tuwaitha.
In the suburbs about 18 miles south of the capital’s suburbs, this city comprises nearly 100 buildings — workshops, laboratories, cooling towers, nuclear reactors, libraries and barracks — that belong to the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission.
Investigators Tuesday discovered that Al-Tuwaitha hides another city. This underground nexus of labs, warehouses, and bomb-proof offices was hidden from the public and, perhaps, International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors who combed the site just two months ago, until the U.S. Marine Corps Combat Engineers discovered it three days ago.
Today, the Marines hold it against enemy counter-attacks.
So far, Marine nuclear and intelligence experts have discovered 14 buildings that betray high levels of radiation. Some of the readings show nuclear residue too deadly for human occupation.
A few hundred meters outside the complex, where peasants say the “missile water” is stored in mammoth caverns, the Marine radiation detectors go “off the charts.”
“It’s amazing,” said Chief Warrant Officer Darrin Flick, the battalion’s nuclear, biological and chemical warfare specialist. “I went to the off-site storage buildings, and the rad detector went off the charts. Then I opened the steel door, and there were all these drums, many, many drums, of highly radioactive material.”
To nuclear experts in the United States, the discovery of a subterranean complex is highly interesting, perhaps the atomic “smoking gun” intelligence agencies have been searching for as Operation Iraqi Freedom unfolds.
Last fall, they say, the Central Intelligence Agency prodded international inspectors to probe Al-Tuwaitha for weapons of mass destruction. The inspectors came away with nothing.
“They went through that site multiple times, but did they go underground? I never heard anything about that,” said physicist David Albright, a former IAEA Action Team inspector in Iraq from 1992 to 1997. Officials at the IAEA could not be reached for comment.
“The Marines should be particularly careful because of those high readings. Three hours at levels like that and people begin to vomit. That leads me to wonder, if the readings are accurate, whether radioactive material was deliberately left there to expose people to dangerous levels.
“You couldn’t do scientific work in levels like that. You would die.”
Albright hopes the Marines safeguard any documents they find and preserve the site for analysis. That, say the Combat Engineers, is their mission.
Nestled in a bend in the Tigris River, Al-Tuwaitha was built in the early 1960s. Nuclear experts believe the government began Iraq’s nuclear weapons program there between 1972 and 1976. Satellite imagery shows dramatic expansion at the site in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, according to the Institute for Science and International Security.
Mindful of nuclear weapons inspectors, ISIS said the Iraqis developed methods to thwart them when they visited Al-Tuwaitha.
“Iraq developed procedures to limit access to these buildings by IAEA inspectors who had a right to inspect the fuel fabrication facility. On days when the inspectors were scheduled to visit, only the fuel fabrication rooms were open to them. Usually, employees were told to take their rooms so that the inspectors did not see an unusually large number of people,” according to a 1999 report Albright wrote with Corey Gay and Khidhir Hamza for ISIS.
Hamza, an Iraqi nuclear engineer who defected from Iraq in 1994, testified before Congress last August that Iraq could have had nuclear weapons by 2005.
Yesterday, Hamza expressed great surprise that the underground site could even exist. The ground there is muddy and composed of clay, he said. The water table is barely a foot and a half below the surface of the ground. During construction of one of the former nuclear reactors there, French engineers spent a fortune pumping water from the foundation area, only to see buildings crumble when the water was removed.
Hamza said the French built a reactor at Al-Tuwaitha that Israel destroyed in 1981. The Russians built a reactor that was destroyed during the Gulf War. Both had the muddy ground to contend with.
So the Marine’s discovery makes the former atomic inspector wonder if the Iraqis went to the colossal expense of pumping enough water to build the underground city because no reasonable inspector would think anything might be built underground there.
Nobody would expect it,” Hamza said. “Nobody would think twice about going back there.”
Despite being destroyed twice by bombings, Al-Tuwaitha nevertheless grew to become headquarters of the Iraqi nuclear program, with several research reactors, plutonium processors and uranium enrichment facilities bustling, according to the Federation of American Scientists.
“The plutonium processing was dispersed on-site by the bombing in 1991,” said Michael Levi, the Federation’s director. “But the Iraqis started to rebuild it. And they continued building there after 1998, when the Iraqis ended the inspections.
“I do not believe the latest round of inspections included anything underground, so anything you find underground would be very suspicious. It sounds absolutely amazing.”
Outside the gates yesterday, children on donkeys dragged air conditioners from the area, part of the ongoing looting of government offices, Iraqi army forts and Baathist Party headquarters.
The nuclear scientists, engineers and technicians, housed in a plush neighborhood near the campus, have run away, along with Baathist party loyalists.
Farmers in rags drive the scientists’ Mercedes and Land Rovers across Highway Six, filled with looted color televisions, silk rugs and Burberry suits.
That’s where the Marines see the grand irony.
Amidst grinding poverty, where peasants eke an existence out of dust and river water, the Saddam Hussein regime built a lavish atomic weapons program. In a nation with some of the world’s largest petroleum reserves, Saddam saw the need for nuclear energy.
“It’s going to take some very smart people a very long time to sift through everything here,” said Flick. “All this machinery. All this technology. They could do a lot of very bad things with all of this.”
The mayor of this high-tech city is, for now, Capt. John Seegar, a combat engineer commander from Houston, Tx. He trudges up the 10-story hillocks hiding the campus from the surrounding villages and, crossing near a demolished mud bunker, it all opens up, gleaming and swaddled in roses.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, ever,” said Seegar, who leads a company of combat engineers turned into combat grunts. “How did the world miss all of this? Why couldn’t they see what was happening here?”
Seegar’s biggest headache: Peasant looters, who keep cutting through the miles of barbed wire, no longer electrified because the war killed the power. He cradles in his arms blueprints in Arabic, showing recent construction, and maps in English, detailing which buildings test radioactive. Next to each, Seegar’s placed an asterisk.
“Three weeks ago, the scientists seemed to have abandoned the complex,” said Seegar. “That’s what the villagers say. The place was protected by the Special Republic Guard, but they deserted it, too. Four days ago, everyone was gone. Then we came.”
For him, Al-Tuwaitha is like a crime scene, and the next detectives on the atomic beat will be Army specialists.
Seegar promises to hold the nuclear site until international authorities can take over. His men hunker down in sandbag bunkers, sleepless, gripping machine guns.
Last night, they followed running gun and artillery battles on both sides of the complex, fought by U.S. Marines and soldiers against Iraqi Republican Guards and Fedayeen terrorists.
In the deserted edifices of Iraqi science, there is the omnipresent Saddam. Paintings show Saddam with scientists; Saddam with farmers; Saddam with soldiers. On the walls, Saddam’s face. In the scrub surrounding the guard bunkers, murals of Saddam. There are books of Saddam sayings. Scientists’ offices glitter with medals, from Saddam.
The offices underground, under unlit signs warning of “Gas/Gaz,” are stuffed with videos and pictures, all showing how this complex was built, largely over the last four years after formal international inspections ended. The Marines haven’t even mapped all the subterranean tunnels veining the site.
In an above-ground library built like a fortress with a beautiful alabaster marble now washed in dust and mud, the clocks stopped at ten minutes until one. The stacks, cool because of the marble, hold the scientific manuals, textbooks and published papers for the Iraqi intelligentsia.
In the commanding general’s study, goldfish still swim in a long tank, glittering like the medals on his desk from Saddam.
“Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy for Scientific and Economic Development,” a bulky green tome published in 1975, leans against the general’s wall, under a picture of Saddam, whose Baathist Party came to power four years later in a bloody coup.
On a mantle, folded under documents, a Christmas card never sent. On the front is a dove, its wings the ellipses of the atom, tinged in orange, yellow and green. Under it, a tiger, facing backward, its body a swirl of Arabic letters. Inside the card: “Rights of Third World Peoples To Alternate Energy Sources For the Future Development of Their Environment and Culture.”
The next page: “Let Us Hope This New Year Will Be a Year of Peace and Justice and With All Good Wishes for Christmas and the New Year.” Signed, Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission. Baghdad.