The conviction gaining ground in DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources is that Saddam’s arsenal of chemical weapons are hidden in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley. His biological weapons may be there too. They are buried deep under the poppy fields grown for heroin and the rows of cotton plants in two of the most fertile regions of Lebanon: the valley stretching between Jabal Akroum, the town of al Qbayyat and the Syrian border, and the land lying between the towns of Al Hirmil and al Labwah between the Orontes River and the Syrian frontier. (See attached map)
On February 14, about a month before the start of the war in Iraq, DEBKA-Net-Weekly Issue 97, carried the following item under the headline “Is Iraq’s WMD cache in Lebanon available to Al Qaeda?”…
Now, our intelligence sources can report exclusively that the relocation of Iraq’s WMD systems took place between January 10 and March 10, completed just 10 days before the US-led offensive was launched. The banned arsenal was hauled in giant tankers from Iraq to Syria and from there to the Bekaa Valley under the escort of large contingents of Syrian special forces and personnel from air force intelligence, Syria’s main counterintelligence arm that has nothing much to do with the Syrian air force.
Syrian army engineers were waiting for the tankers to pull up at pre-marked spots in the poppy and cotton fields. Using special drilling equipment, they dug holes some six to eight meters (20 to 26 ft) across and 25 to 35 meters (82 to 115 ft) deep. Cranes and heavy cables lowered containers into the ground. Some vehicles fed their deadly cargoes into pipes, which were then sealed and buried. Satellite photos showed the operation was carried out at night and that crews handling the material wore protective suits. Once it was all in place, bulldozers covered the pits and leveled the ground. Later, local farmers planted new poppy and cotton seedlings over the area.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources, the exact fields where the WMD caches are buried are known. So are the sums Syrian intelligence officers paid out to the local growers for their cooperation and silence.
Chemical and biological weapons experts told DEBKA-Net-Weekly that interment is the only effective way of destroying this type of dangerous toxic weaponry in time. But it was put into the ground recently enough to still be usable if excavated. It is also detectable from the surface with the right instruments.
Our sources have learned that Syria was paid about $35 million to make Saddam Hussein’s forbidden weapons disappear. President Bashar Assad dealt with the project in person, not sharing the secret with his government. He made sure the hidden weapons would leave Syrian territory without delay and arranged for their transfer from Iraq to Lebanon without stopping over.
Friday, May 2, US secretary of state Colin Powell arrives in Damascus for a 24-hour visit. As an exceptional personal gesture to Assad, he intends to sleep over in the Syrian capital and participate in a gala reception that Syrian foreign minister Farouk a-Shara is planning to throw in his honor. It will mark the first time a secretary of state has stayed overnight in Damascus since Henry Kissinger came for a visit three decades ago.
Both Saddam’s Bio-Weapons Scientists Bagged
But DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources say Powell’s gesture should not be misread. Far from placatory it is meant to underscore the tough message he is bringing to Assad when they get together Saturday morning, May 4, shortly before he heads out to his next stop in Beirut.
First, Powell will thank Assad for his efforts to hand over top Iraqi political and military officials who found sanctuary in Syria – especially since the handover has speeded up. Our sources have learned that Syrian intelligence officers controlling the border with Iraq have begun giving a heads-up to US special forces based along the front north of Mosul. They are now specifying for the Americans’ benefit the times and places of Iraqi VIPs’ crossings from Syria into Iraq.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly has learned from its most exclusive sources that on the evening of Monday, April 28, the Syrians secretly handed Dr. RihabTaha, a microbiologist known as Dr. Germ, to the Americans. She had directed Iraq’s biological weapons program. They also turned over Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, who headed Iraq’s anthrax project. Taha’s husband, General Amir Muhammed Rasheed, director of Iraq’s missile development program and best known by his nickname “The Missile Man” was handed over to the Americans 24 hours later was released and reported to the media.
The United States is therefore fully apprised of the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein’s arsenal of unconventional weapons and has taken custody of the scientists who developed, built and tested them!
Powell’s List of Demands for Assad
Powell will confront his Syrian host with a precise list of tough demands:
1. A map with the exact coordinates of the pits holding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. The United States knows Damascus has three maps and that one is kept in Assad’s office.
2. To turn in the most senior of Saddam Hussein’s insiders who fled to Aleppo and Latakiya – as debkafile revealed on April 3. After we blew the whistle the group was whisked out of the Cote D’Azur De Cham Resort in Latakia, leaving only their families comfortably ensconced there.
3. To give up the two senior Al Qaeda members now in Damascus. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources say their names and whereabouts were uncovered by US intelligence units in Iraq.
4. To explain why Syria allowed two British terrorists, Assif Hanif, who blew himself up in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, and Omar Khan Sharif, who ran away, to transit Damascus en route to Israel. Details of their route are reported exclusively in a separate article in this issue and in DEBKAfile.
5. To put an immediate stop to the military-terrorist activities of the Lebanese Hizballah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Syria and Lebanon. Failure to do so, Powell will explain, will result in a painful tightening of economic pressure on Syria that could land the country in crisis.
Powell will make it clear to Assad that the closure of the Iraqi-Syrian oil pipeline that provided Damascus with a $1 billion cash cow is only the first of a series of economic sanctions which the United States has in store for his country.
But DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources note that Powell is carrying a carrot along with his stick. Assad will also hear that Washington is prepared, as it has shown over the past week, to ease political and economic pressure on Syria by means of discreet arrangements, provided the Syrian president is willing to be a partner in the peace process Washington is pursuing in the wake of the Iraq War. (More about US peace plans in Hot Points at the bottom of this issue)
One plan is for Assad to invite Abu Mazen, the new Palestinian prime minister, to Damascus. This step would further underline Yasser Arafat’s state of isolation in view of his never having been received in Damascus. The next step will be for the Bush administration to invite the leaders of Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq’s new regime and the Palestinians to a regional conference that would set the stage for Syrian and Palestinian peace negotiations with Israel.
Powell will tell Assad bluntly to choose between confrontation and negotiations.
If the Syrian leader opts for diplomacy, the Americans are willing to keep his acquiescence under their hat and suspend punishment for the role Syria played in hiding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
Meanwhile, Russia’s SVR intelligence service and military intelligence – both of which have good sources in Syria and Lebanon – will keep president Vladimir Putin posted on any possible deals afoot, together with Washington’s likely decision to delay releasing the location of Iraq’s hidden weapons of mass destruction. Putin will try and exploit the situation to spike the second Pax Americana taking shape in the Middle East in 10 years.
At the same time, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East experts stress that Powell’s moves will be more in the nature of probes to explore how the Bush administration should proceed next in the post Iraq war era. The White House is currently in option-weighing mode. Its decisions must serve two objectives: One is to advance America’s long-range strategic goals in the Middle East. The second is to get Bush re-elected as President in November 2004.