Just past the critical two-week mark of the Iraq campaign, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources found Iraq’s government and military leadership close to breaking point, with the hard men Saddam Hussein left behind in Baghdad divided between those willing to surrender and survive and those seeking to fight on.
According to unconfirmed intelligence sources, the first faction has jumped the gun and is already locked in secret negotiations on white flag terms in three places, Washington, Central Command Headquarters in Qatar and Riyadh. By Thursday night, April 3, the holdouts who had banked on luring US forces to their doom in Baghdad’s narrow streets also realized that their situation was hopeless.
But who is on what side and how much of the army or Baghdad itself they control is obscured in the slipstream of disarray the escaping Saddam Hussein clique left in its wake. Above all, no one is clear which commanders control weapons of mass destruction and what their intentions are regarding the disposal of these deadly devices. This hazard became acute Thursday night as government in Baghdad appeared to dissolve in chaos and the Iraqi army’s chains of command broke down. Allied spy drones and satellites picked up scenes of entire Iraqi divisions in disarray, remnants running hither and thither without direction and Republican Guards troops sitting at roadsides staring aimlessly at their burnt tanks.
The Iraqi forces positioned in northern Iraq appeared to be in headlong flight south, straggling in disorderly groups towards Tikrit and Baghdad. None remained to defend the oil wells of Mosul and Tikrit and there were no attempts at sabotage. They left behind 5,000 US soldiers with the pro-American Kurdish militias and no one to fight.
Earlier Wednesday, April 2, DEBKA-Net-Weekly received reports from its Washington sources indicating that US leaders were locked on the horns of a dilemma over whether to pursue the current war plan to its conclusion or step up the pace of ceasefire negotiations.
Before leaving to address the Marines in North Carolina Thursday, commander in chief George W. Bush was won over to the hawkish position represented by Vice president Dick Cheney, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Iraq War commander General Tommy Franks. They urged pushing on with the offensive until the Baghdad government, whoever it may be, was forced to surrender.
Secretary of state Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers and CIA Director George Tenet urged a slowdown of hostilities in favor of ceasefire negotiations now.
The first camp wanted to see Baghdad fall first. They urged placing the Iraqi capital to siege, after which special forces would dropped over its open spaces, such as Baghdad University in the south, or in the central neighborhoods of Tarablus and Karama, both southeast of the Tigris and straddling the main 14th of July north-south highway that cuts through the capital.
At the same time, Delta Force and Navy Seal commandos would swarm into the city via the river and move in on the command and control centers running the war from the network of bunkers along its banks and under the important government buildings in central Baghdad.
The elite troops and commandos would also take control of power plants, water pumping stations, broadcast facilities, communications centers and landmark centers of the Saddam regime.
What happened after the president gave Franks the go-ahead was what was described as the Saddam International Airport Battle. In fact, the objective under attack was not the airport facilities but a large hidden series of huge bunkers located at the tip of the last runway – one of Saddam Hussein’s two personal control, command and communications posts. The commandos’ mission was to capture the secret facility quickly and search for some lead to the whereabouts and fate of the Iraqi ruler who has not been seen in the flesh or heard live for 14 days.
If the first bunker yields no clues, the US special troops will head for a second private presidential bunker in the Karah District, known as Baghdad’s Chevy Chase.
One of the strongest arguments Franks used to persuade the President to press ahead in Baghdad was the success of his stratagem to insert Majid Khoei, the anti-Saddam son of the legendary Iraqi Shiite Ayatollah, into Najef. He not only won the population over to greeting the 101st Airborne Division’s troops, but talked the revered Ayatollah Sistani round to issuing a fatwa, a religious edict, instructing the faithful to remain calm and refrain from hindering coalition combatants. He was backed up by a fellow Iraqi Ayatollah Bahralulum who lives in exile in London. Franks was eager to take advantage of this Shiite opening before the ayatollahs changed their minds or were got at from Tehran.
He knew that if he was quick, the large Shiite districts of Baghdad would obey the edict issuing from one of the two Shiite holy cities, easing the US forces’ path into Baghdad.
On the other hand, Powell argued that invading Baghdad would cost lives, while entering into ceasefire and surrender negotiations first would render possible a peaceable US entry into the capital. On the side of his argument was a development revealed now by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources: Saudi leaders were leaning hard on President George W. Bush to give surrender talks a chance before ordering General Franks to send the troops into Baghdad.
Saudis Bear Messages from Baghdad
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, Powell’s trip to Ankara on Wednesday, April 2, had more to do with Iraqi surrender talks than with Turkey’s lukewarm attitude on collaboration with the American war effort. Saudi emissaries flew in from Baghdad via Damascus especially to meet him and deliver some answers from Baghdad and tokens that their Iraqi sources mean business.
The reason Bush sent Powell to Turkey rather than his special Iraq envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, was what DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources describe as Saudi rancor towards Khalilzad, They blame him for using his key role in the Afghan War to ruin the kingdom’s reputation in the United States and stigmatize the princes as financiers of al Qaeda terror.
Powell, in contrast, maintains a warm and collaborative relationship with the Saudi crown prince Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, since some weeks prior to the Iraq War.
(How this friendship evolved was disclosed in DEBKA-Net-Weekly 99, February 28, 2003).
The strong Saudi stake in the outcome of the Iraq crisis is pointed up by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, who note that Riyadh was the only Arab government (excepting only Damascus) to develop links with the Sunni Muslim tribes of Iraq before and during the current conflict. Saudi intelligence officers, who are believed to have paid frequent trips to Iraq in the course of the hostilities of the last two weeks, may have also attended the secret Saudi conclave with Powell in Ankara.
Concurrently, the Saudis also opened a direct line to Saddam Hussein and his sons, Uday and Qusay. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources describe those interchanges as focusing on the terms for Saddam’s acceptance of exile, which included guarantees not touch his bank accounts or hidden fortune and safe conduct for himself, his sons and family.
In the days leading up to the war, Washington agreed to no more than safe passage for Saddam and a party of 12 close family members. The Bush administration was clearly determined to capture and try as war criminals all the key Iraqi political and military leaders remaining in Baghdad.
It came as no surprise when Saddam rejected the terms outright. The war accordingly went forward days later on March 19.
Soft Landing at Syrian Beach Paradise
Nonetheless, Saudi intermediaries kept channels open to both the Sunni tribes and Saddam’s clan. They promised Sunni tribal chiefs they would not want for money, food, medicine or any other essentials during and after the hostilities. With Saddam, they reached an understanding that he, along with his near and dear and a large part of his following would be allowed to take off for a save haven when the US ground and air offensive drew a tight noose around their regime.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources can now reveal that, before the onset of the war, Saddam came to a secret arrangement with his closest ally, Syrian president Bashar Assad – except that it was no secret to the Bush administration, the rulers of Saudi Arabia and a number of Middle East intelligence agencies.
It was tacitly agreed that the Iraqi ruler would be allowed to cross from Iraq into Syria whenever he chose and find asylum in that country together with his top officials.
At noon Middle Eastern time on Thursday, April 3, DEBKAfile and DEBKA-Net-Weekly reported exclusively that Iraq’s top leaders, including possibly Saddam Hussein, were safely ensconced at the luxury Cote d’Azur De Cham Resort in Syria’s Mediterranean port city of Latakia.
The 1,600-room hotel is adjacent to the Assad family’s presidential summer villa. Its guests have the exclusive use of a private, 600-meter-long beach, indoor swimming pools, numerous restaurants, tennis courts, a golf course and water sport facilities. The Iraqis rented all of the resort’s suites, leaving the other guests to act as unwitting human shields.
In an ironic twist, the hotel uses a billing center located in Washington, at (202) 835-9900, Fax number (202) 835-2210.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources say Assad himself set the rack rate for Saddam and his entourage, with payment for the suites going directly into the Syrian President’s private bank accounts in Europe. The bill for the unlimited stay will run to millions.
Assad’s Pricey Friendship
Living in the lap of luxury at the resort was only part of the secret deal Saddam reached with his Syrian ally. The main military-operational clauses of the agreement also covered:
A. The transfer of Iraq’s non-conventional weapons systems, including medium-range al-Hussein missiles, to Syria and Lebanon where they are still hidden at sites dug by the Syrian intelligence and engineering corps.
(DEBKA-Net-Weekly reported exclusively on this development in Issue 96 on February 7, just days after Iraqi general Ali Hassan al-Majid held lengthy talks with Assad. Majid, Saddam’s cousin, is the long-time chief of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program, overseeing their production and introduction into the service of his country’s armed forces. He traveled to Damascus about a month-and-a-half before the start of the war to check on the progress of plans to transfer and house the weapons.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report that Assad demanded a hefty deposit for the Iraqis’ suites at the resort in Latakia and an exorbitant monthly fee in the multimillion dollar range for safeguarding and maintaining Saddam’s weapons caches. The agreement provides for hundreds of Iraqi military technicians to regularly cross into Syria, change into Syrian army uniforms and take full charge of the weapons systems and missiles.
Saddam learned his lesson from the 1991 Gulf War when he sent most of his warplanes to Iran for safekeeping and, twelve years later, Iran has still not sent a single plane back.
B. Iraq was lent the use of Syrian operations rooms and military networks during the US invasion. Few intelligence sources recalled that a permanent Iraqi military delegation, comprised of armored and signal corps officers as well as air force personnel, has been stationed in Damascus since September 2000 under a secret military pact Assad and Saddam signed five months earlier.
The delegation is tasked with planning and supervising Iraqi-Syrian operational coordination during wartime.
These Iraq officers were this week given the task of relaying instructions to Baghdad from the Cote d’Azur resort. Saddam and/or his top team communicate with the delegation from a secret operations room set up under the hotel. Originally built for personnel serving the Syrian presidential villa next door, this hotel command center is directly connected to Syrian general headquarters in Damascus. What has happened is that the exiled Iraqi leaders are making use of Syrian communications networks to run the war in Iraq from Latakia.
None of these services come cheap: DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report that Assad is personally pocketing $12 million to $15 million a month of Iraqi cash on top of regular monthly payments to the Syrian treasury.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources note that Washington, who knew about these arrangements, never dreamed that the Iraqi exiles would use them to continue to conduct the war from Latakiya. They asked Assad through Saudi go-betweens for an explanation.
The Syrian President replied by suggested coolly that the Americans should be grateful instead of angry because he had made it possible for them to monitor the Iraqi operations room in Latakia and tap into data that would provide them with an edge in the war.
Not much activity was picked up by monitors activated in Latakiya by the Pentagon, the State Department and the National Security Council two months before hostilities began. In the days leading up to the March 19 assault on Iraq, before the missile and stealth bomber attack on the Iraqi command bunker in Baghdad, US electronic monitors recorded activation of the Latakiya-Damascus-Baghdad communications links every couple of hours.
From March 23, when Iraqi leaders moved out of Baghdad to the Syrian hotel resort, the links were in use around the clock.
Where Is Saddam?
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources make no claim to know which Iraqi leaders made it to the Cote d’Azur Resort and, most importantly, whether Saddam or his sons were among them. Neither do any of our sources know the state of his health. The Iraqi leader could be lying wounded in the hotel under medical supervision – or he could be dead. What is clear is that as DEBKA-Net-Weekly went to press, neither Saddam nor his sons were in Baghdad and he bulk of the Iraqi leadership were comfortably settled in the Syrian hotel in Latakiya.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources can report that from March 23, the continuous operation of the Latakiya-Damascus-Baghdad communications link was evidence that Iraq’s defense was being conducted from the Syrian port city. Washington and the US war command in Qatar felt they had been cheated, dealt a low card by the Saudis and the Syrians. The plan had been for Iraqi leaders to go into exile, thereby bringing the war to an end and opening the way to regime change. The communications network operating underneath the hotel was not meant as a permanent instrument in the hands of the exiled leaders for keeping their hands on the levers of war management.
The United States received another unpleasant surprise from the discovery that large segments of the network were fiber optic cables laid by North Korean and Eastern European technicians between Damascus and command bunkers in Baghdad. They were therefore safe from American attempts to knock the network out of action or even monitor most of its traffic. The thousands of bombs and missiles that pounded headquarters and communications centers in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities receiving orders from the secret Latakiya command center via Damascus never reached deep enough to hit the deeply buried cables.
Syria’s acceptance of its role as Iraq’s secret communications conduit was the real reason prompting US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s stern warning to Damascus on Friday, March 28 to stop playing a hostile role in the Iraq war. When he spoke about the volunteers from Syria to Iraq, he was really referring to a completely different and more dangerous transfer – of information and orders. Two days later, Powell underlined the warning to Syria by declaring Damascus would be held responsible for its actions.
The feeling that the Saudis and Syrians had conspired against Washington to help Saddam Hussein save himself and Baghdad tipped the US President into his decision to finish the job in Baghdad and not take Powell’s advice to negotiate first.
In the early afternoon of Tuesday, March 31, the Latakiya-Baghdad communication link went suddenly and inexplicably silent. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources have no explanation, but have established that the interruption was not ordered by the Syrian president.
That same afternoon, Iraqi vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan was scheduled to meet a group of French journalists in Baghdad to cover the war.
At exactly 3:10 p.m. in Baghdad, while Ramadan was shaking the reporters’ hands in the foyer of his office, one of his bodyguards rushed in and thrust a note into his hand. Ramadan read the message and blanched. His hands began to shake. Without a word, he left the reporters and headed back to his office, offering no apology to the puzzled journalists.
Five minutes later, at 3:15 p.m., communications between Latakia and Baghdad went down. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources do not know what the note said or why it had such a powerful effect on the Iraqi vice president. Was it word of Saddam’s death? Or did some other misfortune befall Saddam and his sons in Latakiya – or wherever they may be?
Since that moment, the Iraqi high command’s control of combat units in the field has declined steadily. The high morale displayed by Iraq’s regular army and the Republican Guards suddenly faded. Although the Iraqi military never displayed especial prowess on the battlefield or notably clever maneuvers, it had nevertheless functioned in an orderly fashion according to certain military standards and tactical logic. Now, not only have the military fallen into disarray, but even the guerrilla forces and suicides that plagued the long US armored columns and supply lines in southern Iraq were suddenly gone – along with the fighting spirit of the Revolutionary Guards divisions and Saddam’s Fedayeen.
The Iraqi military command, control and communications system broke down progressively – along with its supply system, between Monday, March 31 and the afternoon of Thursday, April 2. As of Wednesday morning, April 1, US forces were able to advance on all fronts without encountering any serious opposition; American units breezed across Euphrates and Tigris bridges which were left undemolished and virtually undefended.
By Thursday, US special forces were already operating inside Baghdad itself.
Before the dust settles at the war headquarters in Qatar and the White House, Bush and his top advisers face an important military decision: whether or not to send US special forces to raid the Cote d’Azur Resort and capture the Iraqi leadership – if they are still there.
Another key decision confronting the Americans is whether to send units to seek out and destroy the weapons of mass destruction Iraq has buried in Syria and Lebanon – in a covert or open military operation.
Either decision may tip the Middle East into a regional war that could spread to Iran.