Like a fox that hears the baying of the hounds, Saddam Hussein is reported to have located a bolt-hole for a quick escape. He appears to have made indirect contact with Osama bin Laden, the master fugitive who has so far eluded the American huntsmen, and procured his help in finding a safe haven close enough to permit him to keep on fighting.
That is the word going round the staff of General Tommy Franks’s war command and the Pentagon, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources. The CIA officers in charge of the search for Osama bin Laden read certain clues on the ground as indicating that the Iraqi and al Qaeda leaders are in a dialogue about joining forces to wage war on America and its allies from their hideouts, after a new pro-American regime is installed in Baghdad.
The signs from Baghdad, according to our sources, are that the Bush government’s strategy of isolating Saddam’s bastions, psychological pressure and the subversion of his army is taking effect.
The Iraqi ruler and his sons, close family and trusted aides have given their secret travel plans the final touches this month since the UN Security Council resolution brought the overt American assault uncomfortably close. His beleaguered state was underscored by the blunt warnings issuing from Washington, such as the one uttered by defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld on November 17, on his way to Santiago. Rumsfeld “advised” Iraqi troops to “stay in their barracks” and away from “the triggers on chemical and biological weapons”.
His words echoed the leaflets dropped on November 9 on Iraqi troop concentrations in the south warning them not to fire on American and allied forces.
Implied by Rumsfeld in the same interview was also a nuclear threat. He said the Defense Department was looking at a range of means, including perhaps small nuclear bombs called “earth penetrators”, to destroy arms and facilities buried deep by terrorist networks and countries developing weapons of mass destruction.
This confirmed an earlier report by DEBKA-Net-Weekly and reminded Saddam that his palatial bunkers would be no protection against American “earth penetrators”.
At the NATO summit in Prague, US President George W. Bush, added to the pressure by informing the Saddam government that denial of weapons of mass destruction would bring it into its last moments; delay and defiance would invite the severest of consequences. Saddam knows that a full admission would not bring him a pat on the head either. He therefore has no way of ducking the American threat or segregating his men and officers from Washington’s verbal assault on their loyalty.
US intelligence, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources, have come to believe that the story going round this week about the offer of a multi-billion dollar payment to Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi for sanctuary, with Syrian pitching in with an escape route via its Mediterranean port, was a fable put about by Baghdad to misdirect attention from the real plan of escape and the comings and goings of senior Iraqi officials setting it up.
Several intelligence sources detected two secret visits to the United Arab Emirates in early November by three very senior Iraqi officials – the two vice presidents Taha Yassin Ramadan and Izaat Ibrahim and General Ali Hassan al-Majid. They met there with top al-Qaeda representatives to discuss arrangements for secreting Iraqi leaders to Gulf hideaways that bin Laden himself and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri would prepare. Some intelligence sources say these clandestine rendezvous took place in the Hadhramauth area of Yemen that is controlled by tribes loyal to the Saudi-born terrorist leader.
Our intelligence sources also report glimpses of plainclothes Iraqi intelligence units in a number of Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, who vanished before they could be followed.
The same sources are certain the Saddam party does not propose to go underground unarmed. They believe he and his military commanders have spirited out of the country the lighter elements of Iraq’s nuclear, biological and chemical weapons arsenal, using al-Qaeda agents in the Gulf to ferry the materials to their new hiding places. This moving armory does not include missile launchers, but may run to dismantled light planes and drones, along with some unconventional warheads. He will also take with him over a thousand commandos of his elite Intelligence 999 units, who are trained in large-scale terror and sabotage in enemy terrain and the use of WMD. (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly No. 83. November 1)
Certain other movements lend credence to the reports. The family homes of army officers who left the country are shuttered and deserted. European and Asian companies secretly owned by Saddam and his relatives have transferred a small fortune in cash and gold to Gulf locations. US and Middle Eastern intelligence officials believe Saddam had between $3 billion and $5 billion stashed in those companies’ bank accounts, mainly in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Australia. This money is expected to bankroll his escape and the construction of a military and political command base in exile from which he will wage war.
Given the friable state of the Iraqi army, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence experts believe that Saddam’s quick exit could cause the Iraqi government and military to crumble as soon as the American offensive starts. That scenario postulates a short war of three to six days. But it could also be costly. Saddam may well leave behind him in Iraq crews manning missiles and other weapons of mass destruction, whose families have been snatched as hostages to force their compliance with orders to attack US forces or other targets in the Middle East. Disobedience would be their relatives’ death warrants.
The possibility of Saddam opting to steal out of Iraq was first raised by DEBKA-Net-Weekly No. 78 on September 27 in an article captioned: “Saddam ponders vanishing in a chemical-biological cloud”.