Middle East The Big Sting

Foiled in his attempt to buy devices for atomic warheads, Saddam Hussein remains determined to make Iraq the first Arab nuclear power

Smaller than a soda can and with a sticker price of about $200, a capacitor hardly appears lethal. Its industrial applications range from use in copier machines to air-conditioning units to aerospace equipment. But take a highly miniaturized capacitor capable of storing 5,000 volts, feed it into a peanut- size switch called a krytron, and the result is a device that can be used for the deadliest purpose of all: triggering a nuclear explosion.

Atomic weapons were on the mind of a buyer for Iraq when he contacted a California manufacturer of capacitors in September 1988. One year later, he struck...