Intelligence spotters were initially mystified by the 60-truck convoy that US spy satellites photographed last week busily shifting crates at a key Iraqi biological weapons site once known as the Taji Single Cell Protein plant, some seven miles (10 km) northwest of Baghdad – as first reported in The Washington Times Wednesday, August 14. The CIA declined to comment on the newspaper report. But DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources, noting that Israeli spy satellites also picked up the convoy, have since learned it was part of a highly complex and ambitious Iraqi operation to whisk most of its nuclear, biological and chemical weapons-making equipment to safety with its erstwhile foe turned ally, Iran, ahead of a feared US offensive.
Saddam has put his son Qusay in charge of the high-powered project. Handling the Iranian end is another high-ranking figure, Mohammad Bagher Zolghadr, acting commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards units posted on the Iran-Iraq border.
About 150 containers packed with some of the most sensitive equipment Iraq has developed for the production of weapons of mass destruction have already made their way east across the border into Iran. Over the weekend, Iraq plans to move out another three convoys, each carrying between 35 and 50 containers of similar cargo.
The Iraqi sleight-of-hand project has confronted Washington and Jerusalem with a dilemma. Should they let Saddam Hussein push more convoys over the border into Iran carrying his prized equipment out of reach? Or should they bomb them en route, either from the air or in a special forces ground operation? Urgent consultations have not yet reached a decision on this.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military experts divide the logic behind Saddam’s move into three parts:
A. He and his intelligence advisers have no doubt that American special forces units already present in northern, central and southern Iraq are targeting Iraqi weapons productions systems for sabotage, well before the main thrust of the US offensive begins.
B. The transfer may be further evidence of the Iraqi leader’s intention of embarking on pre-emptive action against US Middle East forces and their allied Israeli, Turkish and Jordanian armies. Sending his sensitive equipment out of reach will keep it safe from an American retaliatory strike.
(See the next article on the likelihood of an Iraqi pre-emptive attack.)
C. The calm, efficient organization of the bulk transfer attests to calculations by Saddam and his top advisers that they have enough stocks of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and systems immediately to hand to meet the requirements of a pre-emptive strike by Baghdad or its response to a Washington-initiated military assault on Iraq. It also indicates Saddam is digging in for a drawn-out conflict and wants to make sure he has a sufficiency of military resources in reserve – including the means of producing more weapons of mass destruction – to sustain it.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources also reveal the destination of the precious equipment:
the Zagros Mountains that dominate western Iran’s Kermanshah province near the border with Iraq. In the last four years, Iran has been constructing special nuclear- and smart bombproof tunnels under these almost impassable, snow-clad peaks, some towering to between 12,000 to 15,000 feet.
The first 100 Iraqi containers were deposited in two tunnel sites in the Zagros Mountains – one in the Baba Abbas area outside the suburbs of Khorram-Abad and the other in the Harour Hills in the Khorram Abad region.
The two sites are 20-30 kilometers (12-18 miles) east of the Iraqi border.
Construction of the tunnels began in the mid-70s under the Shah before he was overthrown by Khomeini in 1979. Then, for twenty years, they were more or less abandoned, although a Revolutionary Guard (Pazdaran) force was permanently stationed at the tunnels site. In early 1998, a large Pazdaran engineering contingent arrived to rebuild the tunnels and ready them for the contingency of nuclear conflict. The man in charge of this modernization project is Zolghadr.
Iran’s ulterior motive in providing safekeeping for Saddam’s WMD resources is simple. According to our intelligence sources, Iran commands nothing nearly as advanced as Iraq in the way of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons-making equipment. Helping Saddam will lend Iran’s experts free access to Iraq’s state of the art equipment and a chance to copy and assimilate technology that cost Iraq billions of dollars to develop.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources have turned up a second Iranian military work crew at work not far from the Baba Abbas tunnels outside Khorram Abad. This one, assisted by Russian missile experts and technicians, is building a big launching base for Shehab-3 surface-to-surface missiles.