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The brains behind Iraq's arsenal

US-educated Iraqi scientists may be as crucial to Iraq's threat as its war hardware.

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If UN inspectors return soon to Iraq, it won't be just weapons of mass destruction they're hunting. Perhaps an equally crucial mission will be to find the people who know how to build them.

As the US and United Nations wrangle over a new inspection regime, former weapons inspectors warn against becoming preoccupied hunting for missiles, bombs, and laboratories – and instead focusing more on finding Iraq's top weapons experts.

Over the years, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has assembled an army of microbiologists, chemical engineers, and nuclear physicists who, if questioned carefully, may reveal as much about weapons development as any search for petri dishes or aluminum tubes.

Indeed, unlike military hardware, "human capital," will not be easy for Mr. Hussein to replace, says David Kay, the UN's former top nuclear-weapons inspector in Iraqi. "Facilities you can destroy," he says. "But Saddam has the money to repurchase the best equipment. The one thing they don't have in abundance is the embedded human capital."

One irony is that if inspectors do locate any of the bombmakers, a translator may not be necessary. That's because many in Hussein's weapons-development brain trust apparently got their training at universities in the US, Britain, and Europe.

Just ask Khidir Hamza, who received his master's degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his PhD in nuclear physics from Florida State University. As Hussein's director of nuclear weaponization, he became the highest-ranking scientist to defect in 1994.

In an interview, Dr. Hamza recalled a meeting in the late 1970s when he and other Iraqi scientists sat down to plan the nation's new nuclear-weapons development plan. With him at the table were Husham Sharif and Moyesser al-Mallah, both US university-educated nuclear experts, he says.

"Most of the nuclear era's earlier programs, the core personnel, were US trained," he says. "We were telling them actually where to send the [Iraqi] students."

A grand education plan

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