Electronic Pursuit of Saddam and Coalition Fortress in Baghdad
For two months less one day, Saddam Hussein’s gravelly voice was not heard once over the airwaves. On November 16, beginning the last week of Ramdan, an audiotape landed at the Dubai studios of al Arabiya describing the Iraqi people as made of a special kind of chemical that no one alive had ever vanquished and calling on them to wage holy war against the American occupier.
What kept him silent from September 17?
debkafile‘s intelligence sources have two answers – both highly pertinent to the US forces’ failure to run the deposed Iraqi ruler to earth or bring the Iraqi-Arab guerilla campaign to a halt:
1. The inability of US intelligence to penetrate the inner circle Saddam Hussein kept with him when he went into hiding.
2. That inner circle’s superior ability to keep track of American moves.
In early September, the US command in Iraq was certain that its Task Force 121, charged with catching Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction, was closing in on the fugitive dictator and only hours away from capturing him. The hunt that focused on Tikrit at the heart of the Sunni Triangle and on Mosul in the north came to a dead end.
American commanders, running out of leads, decided to launch a massive effort to track the elusive former president through the movements of the audiotapes which he was somehow able to deliver whenever he wanted at the Qatari TV station Al Jazeera and the Al Arabiya TV studio in Dubai. They waited for his taped voice to materialize and signal a fresh stage in the anti-US guerrilla campaign, as it did just before the series of destructive bombings in Baghdad, the systematic sabotage of oil pipelines and the marked upsurge in guerrilla activity. Various experts were assigned to trying to identify the person who handed in the tapes, their recipient and their route to the broadcasting studios as a means of tracing the wanted man’s whereabouts.
Staffers of the two Arab stations were placed under around- the-clock surveillance, their phones and computers tapped and their cars shadowed. Angry confrontations ended more than once with cameras and film being confiscated. At the outset of Operation Iron Hammer on November 13, US bombers made a side swipe at a building owned by al Jazeera TV in south Baghdad. Alternatively, electronic specialists kept a close watch on telephone, radio and electronic traffic to spot any digital transfers or recordings of the audio tapes.
None of this availed. No sooner was this blanket surveillance in place, when the flow of audiocassettes dried up. Clearly, Saddam’s contacts among the TV personnel and other objects of surveillance had warned him to lie low and observe total electronic hush so as not to give his hideout away.
When Ramadan began last month, US intelligence expected Saddam to go into his Muslim leader mode and broadcast a message to the Iraqi people. Hoping he would break silence and cover, physical and electronic observation was tightened. But he sidestepped the spies and re-appeared when he was no longer expected – on the first day of the last week of Ramadan, leaving American undercover watchers no wiser than before.
US administrator Paul Bremer, who had returned the day before from Washington with new White House guidelines for speeding up the transfer of administration to Iraqi sovereignty, was faced with the task of puzzling out why the massive surveillance campaign had ended so fruitlessly.
While Bremer himself appears to be exceptionally well-informed on Iraqi affairs, sentiment and dynamics, some Iraqis criticize his administration for isolating itself in the heavily guarded and fortified Green Zone centering on the former president’s main palaces in central Baghdad. This complex houses the civilian authority run by the coalition and offices of US consultants in Iraq’s reconstruction projects. Being fairly self-sufficient, it is cut off from ordinary city life. Psychologically, say the critics, this is bound to induce in the coalition authority a siege mentality.
One of the enigmas still defying a solution is the precise relationship between former Iraqi rulers and the pro-Saddam guerrilla-cum-terror campaign waged now in Iraq. debkafile‘s intelligence sources refute the reports circulating this week that Saddam’s deputy Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri is running the campaign. Neither are there any signs of direct lines between the guerrillas and terrorists out in the field and Saddam himself. Their discovery would also provide leads to the former president’s lair and are therefore anxiously sought.
Reports placed before last week’s White House conference on Iraq recalled early theories based on the background noise that occurred on his first tapes that they were made in a moving car. He is still believed to be constantly changing houses and very much dependent on tribal contacts. Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani told CNN this week that Saddam has changed his appearance. Asked how he knew, he cited “people who have seen him”. Talabani, current president of the Governing Council, also commented that Saddam “is not strong enough or brave enough” to manage the insurgency campaign against coalition forces. He noted that Iraq was a very big country with many good hiding places.
None of these efforts, rumors or theories has brought coalition forces any closer to laying hands on Saddam Hussein. Therefore, the key to breaking the violent warfare that daily claims coalition lives remains elusive.