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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

The New York Times September 10, 2006

Shades of Supergun Evoke Hussein's Thirst for Arms

By James Glanz

ISKANDARIYA, Iraq — Sabah al-Khafaji remembers when the pieces started arriving here at the height of Iraq’s weapons program in the late 1980’s, each menacing section of the gun barrel so huge it had to be carried on a separate flatbed truck.

Now, Mr. Khafaji fumbles with the lock on a metal gate near his bus factory 30 miles south of Baghdad and swings it open to a trashy asphalt lot. There lie the rusting steel sections of what may have been Saddam Hussein’s wildest reach: the supergun, an artillery piece so powerful that it could not only shell his enemies in Tel Aviv and Tehran but also fire a projectile into orbit.

Most of Mr. Hussein’s vast network of military complexes and the weapons they contained have been looted, often to the last bolt and window frame. But as weapons experts continue to see and gauge what is left — weapons held within protected enclaves or hulking metal relics even the most ambitious looters were unable to cart away — they are getting a concentrated picture of the obsessive martial mind that ran this country for 25 years.

In Taji and Miqdadiya, both north of Baghdad, the bulky carcasses of tanks, armored personnel carriers, mobile radio shacks and ungainly amphibious vehicles go on for acres, gutted and mismatched weaponry purchased from every country that would do business with Saddam Hussein — which at times, directly or indirectly, seemed to include most of the world’s major arms dealers, including the United States and Britain.

Scattered more thinly are the traces of grandiose projects like the supergun, nicknamed Big Babylon and designed for Mr. Hussein by a brilliant Canadian engineer named Gerald V. Bull, who was eventually assassinated for his trouble, probably by Israeli or Western intelligence agents.

The oversize palaces Mr. Hussein compulsively built are more familiar as visible monuments to his rule. But while the palaces have a decidedly Dr. Seuss feel, the weaponry seems equal parts Jules Verne, power-mad dictator and adolescent boy.

“I would say that Saddam’s regime was not a model of rationality,” said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington-based organization that has studied Mr. Hussein’s weaponry. “He did in some respects share Hitler’s fascination with wonder weapons.”

Some of his dark arsenal was put into action, some just came close. Mr. Hussein’s weaponeers produced the chemical agents that his army used to gas Iranian troops and Kurdish civilians, killing thousands. In 1991, after the Persian Gulf war, weapons inspectors discovered that the Iraqi nuclear bomb program was far more advanced than expected — though after the 2003 invasion no evidence of new nuclear work turned up.

Mostly, Mr. Hussein’s scientists could not satisfy his craving for wonder weaponry, although they tried often enough.

There was a reported program to create a “rail gun,” in which electromagnetic pulses would accelerate a projectile to high speeds, research on elaborate multistage rockets and re-entry vehicles, and, before 1991, endless tinkering with weird biological agents. None of it produced anything particularly useful.

Still, Mr. Hussein’s attachment to armor, artillery and technology was not entirely useless strategically — the arsenal was perhaps a reason he literally stuck to his guns as foreign pressure on his government mounted in 1991 and again in 2003. Back in the 1980’s during Iraq’s war with Iran, it helped Iraq to hold off primitive “human wave” attacks by the Iranian infantry and preserve a grim stalemate. But Iraq could do little, overtly at least, against American and British firepower in the later conflicts.

Maj. William C. Taylor of the Army’s Fourth Infantry Division conducted a recent sunset tour of two enormous scrap yards in Taji, a former Iraqi military base now run by the Americans, where acres of partly destroyed Iraqi military vehicles are laid out like the bones of dinosaurs preserved in their last agonies.

In one scrap yard, the spindly and partly broken superstructures of Soviet radar and missile launching equipment really did look skeletal, with their long-outmoded telescoping antennas and drooping starburst aerials. The stripped chassis of military trucks were stacked as haphazardly as old bedsprings across the turrets of broken tanks.

There was more Russian gear in the other scrap yard, where row after row of damaged and sometimes charred hardware spread out for hundreds of yards in every direction.

Perhaps strangest of all were little Russian armored reconnaissance ground vehicles, somehow evoking Jetsons-style spaceships, made for just one occupant. Major Taylor explained that the two extra wheels drawn up into the vehicle like landing gear would have been lowered for extra support in rough terrain.

But there were also French, American and Brazilian armored vehicles of one kind or another.

“It’s a British Mark I,” Major Taylor marveled, his forage cap disappearing into the hatch of a strangely shaped tank that seemed many decades old. Then he appeared to change his mind. “1970’s?” he said uncertainly as he re-emerged.

Most of the junked vehicles were tagged with graffiti by the Westerners who had dealt this armed menagerie its demise. “Ouch!” read one bit of graffiti, with an arrow pointing to the ragged hole where a shell had torn into the cockpit of a piece of motorized artillery.

There was the inevitable “Size does matter” on the barrel of a cannon, but there were also a few sweet messages in this place of death. “Te amo mi amor,” someone had written on a squat troop carrier with steel tracks.

If at least some of those pieces had practical military uses, the supergun existed in the realm of almost pure fantasy. According to “Arms and the Man: Dr. Gerald Bull, Iraq and the Supergun,” by William Lowther, the barrel alone would have been 512 feet long and weighed 1,665 tons. As the pieces lying around in the lot in Iskandariya illustrated, the barrel was wide enough to fire projectiles “the size of industrial garbage cans,” as Mr. Lowther put it.

Estimates on the cost of two planned superguns and a smaller prototype called Baby Babylon range from $25 million to several hundred million dollars. If the big guns had operated as designed, they could have shot a 300-pound projectile 600 miles, or lifted a much larger payload into orbit if it was outfitted with a small rocket engine.

That would have dwarfed the capabilities of conventional artillery pieces and given Mr. Hussein’s enormous prestige in the Middle East. Dr. Bull, an engineering genius who had once fired a small projectile more than 100 miles straight up as part of a Canadian research project, always maintained that the supergun had no credible military uses.

That assurance was eventually contradicted by a senior Iraqi defector, Gen. Hussein Kamel al-Majid, who according to a GlobalSecurity.org analysis said the supergun “was meant for long-range attack and also to blind spy satellites.”

Still, Lt. Col. James A. Howard, a commander in the Fourth Infantry Division whose unit was shown the Iskandariya scrap yard on a recent day by Mr. Khafaji, who runs a bus factory nearby, the immobility and slow firing rate of the supergun would severely limit its usefulness.

“I think a gun this big would be kind of dumb,” Colonel Howard said, speculating that the device could fire at the most a few rounds a year.

Laughing as he walked among the giant pieces, he played the part of Iraqi artillerymen shooting the weapon: “Oops, we missed! Let’s try another one.”

Copyright 2006, The New York Times Company