Most of this issue of DEBKA-Net-Weekly has been set aside for a study of the actions of Saddam Hussein and his supporters and the policies of Bush administration in view of an accumulation of reports from our military and intelligence sources that a full-scale flare-up of the Iraq War may be imminent. Both sides are said to be assiduously girding up for a fresh round of warfare.
On the one side, forces still loyal to Saddam, the Special Republic Guards and the Saddam Fedayeen suicide squads, are being swelled by thousands of Syrian fighters streaming across the frontier and by guerrilla forces of the dissolved Iraqi Baath who raring to fight the Americans.
On the American side, a new commander; General John Abizaid, an Arabic speaker whose grandparents migrated to the United States from Lebanon, has taken over from General Tommy Franks as senior commander of US forces in Iraq and the global war on terror.
There has been no changing of the guard on the Iraqi side. Saddam and his two sons are the unquestioned leaders of the next armed campaign against US forces. They are supported by the same officers who led the Special Republican Guard divisions against the Americans in the first stage of the conflict in March and April.
Notwithstanding the announcement on May 1 by President George W. Bush that the combat stage of the Iraq War was over, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military experts judge the attacks plaguing US forces and drawing them into renewed hostilities to be but the preamble to the main campaign ahead.
Sorties are now being initiated by both sides to probe the adversary’s mettle. Both are mounting reconnaissance patrols to gauge the strength and resources of the opposition and the resolve of its commanders.
Iraqi ambushes and sniping attacks are escalating and beginning to take a heavy toll, while, behind a media blackout, US special forces are driving hard against often ghostlike enemy forces bedeviling them in Baghdad and the cities of Falluja, Ramadi and Balad north and northwest of the Iraqi capital, thrusting also deep into the al-Qaim region along Iraq’s western border with Syria.
The three to five daily attacks a day the Iraqi resistance proves able to mount against US troops, indicate impressively the hand of professionals at work. These forays have two clear goals: One is to dampen American troop morale by building up the casualty score; the second is tactical, to repel American military incursions into an enclave beneath whose surface Saddam and his allies have dug deep to establish their underground fortress cities.
This enclave ranges from the city of Samarra, about 70 miles (110 km) northwest of Baghdad to a point some 35 miles (55 km) south of Tikrit. It is separated from the Falluja-Ramadi “probing” arena by about 75 miles (120 miles). US troops have begun advancing on Saddam’s key enclave and reached Balad, only 23 miles (37 kilometers) north of Samarra..
(debkafile‘s Special Map delineating Saddam’s Underground Fortresses is attached to this article for orientation. Click on thumbnail for full size.)
In effect, Saddam and his forces can be said to control a 100-110 mile (160-175 km) -long and 60-70 mile (96 and 112 km) – wide pocket of central Iraq delimited by Lake Tharthar in central-western Iraq and the Tigris River in the east. Our military sources report that inside this sweep of territory, American military strength is scanty save for a handful of small special forces units.
The approaching round of hostilities is estimated by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s experts as a high-risk, winner takes all venture that will finally resolve the outcome of the Iraq War. The Americans hope to do away with Saddam Hussein once and for all, while the ousted Iraqi ruler is gambling on repelling the American coup de grace and so smoothing the way for his return to power in Baghdad and anointment as hero of the Arab world.
According to our exclusive military sources, Iraq’s ex-ruler and his men are preparing a battery of medium-range ballistic missiles, some tipped with chemical and biological warheads for the American troops coming to get him.In short, the Iraq War balloon is on the point of going up – and in a big way. How did this happen?
1. Saddam’s Subterranean Cities Key to Next Round
In the weeks leading up to the Iraq war, many words were devoted to Saddam’s vast network of subterranean military cities and palaces and American plans for their destruction. Though often called bunkers, they are in fact small, fully equipped and furnished subterranean cities or citadels connected by proper highways. But when US forces reached Baghdad, the only underground bunkers they came upon were reached through secret openings in two of Saddam’s presidential palaces – one located in the city’s international airport; the other through the Northern Palace north of one of its runways. Strangely, no underground cities came to light in Baghdad or its environs – or in Tikrit to the north, Saddam’s hometown and power base. Because it stayed mostly buried out of sight, this underground fortress system was added to the inventory of secret Iraqi facilities and non-conventional weapons that US President George W. Bush and US intelligence were accused of exaggerating to win American public support of the invasion of Iraq.
On January 17, 2003, DEBKA-Net-Weekly No. 93 published a verbatim interview with a man we called Jassem Abdulla, a pseudonym to protect him from assassination by Saddam’s agents. Abdulla, a recent member of Saddam’s fiercely loyal inner circle of bodyguards, was interviewed at a hotel in the Jordanian capital of Amman.
Following is an excerpt from that interview:
Where are the weapons of mass destruction?
In the desert. It is a vast expanse, and they have cameras,,, the minute someone approaches, such as UN personnel, they move to another place. Tikrit is closest to the site. Weapons are also located in Baghdad.
There's a place called Ouja near Tikrit. It’s a peninsula of sand dunes. I saw with my own eyes bunkers that move from place to place inside the dunes, underground. It is simply unbelievable; it is done by remote control.
Twenty-five people went there in 1994. We were told they were Americans, but the truth is we really didn't know who they were. They were there for four years, until 1998. In early 1991, they worked there and built weapons of mass destruction. But I don't know what's exactly there now. No one saw them. They came by car, with maps. It was strange, because we thought sanctions were in place, but they came and built the complex. Immediately afterwards, they brought the bombs and weapons systems. They built a ceiling and put chemical and biological weapons inside. The Russians followed, and there were Chinese in there too. The Russians tested the strength of the structure. They fired at it and set off explosions. But nothing happened to the Chinese inside. They did not die. I saw the Chinese leave the complex one by one and in one piece.”
Today, the incoming data reaching intelligence agencies on Saddam’s current military deployment and preparations in the Samarra region fully corroborate the fugitive bodyguard’s account as the most accurate to date. He revealed that the subterranean citadel system is twelve years old. Its construction began straight after the 1991Gulf War when Saddam fearing a civilian or military uprising against his regime created a hidden sanctuary spacious enough to house a substantial army to defend him and mount a counter-attack against the insurgents.
In addition to ample accommodation, the underground network consisted also of missile silos
and storage areas for missile components and chemical and biological weapons. Giant emergency depots were installed with room for 200 to 250 tanks and three to five self-propelled howitzers. Maintenance teams have kept these stores in apple-pie order ready for operation.
We now know that the deposed ruler and his two favorite sons left Iraq for Syria on March 27 or 28 and stayed there for 10 to 14 days, or at least until mid-April.
In the second or third week of April, when US forces pushed into Tikrit, Saddam returned to Samarra with Uday and Qusay and headed straight underground. They took up quarters held ready by permanent military and technical crews.
To this day, the manner of Saddam’s departure and return to Iraq is shrouded in mystery. Most puzzling, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence experts, is the failure of US army and British and Australian special forces to locate and deactivate a subterranean network spanning dozens of square miles beneath Iraq’s heartland, along with its vast arsenal of munitions and weapons of mass destruction. This is just one more enigma for adding to the long list of mysteries surrounding the Iraq war.
Perhaps the most perplexing question of all is why the Iraqi defenders did not challenge the invading American and British forces in a single decisive battle anywhere in Iraq. On May 1, President Bush declared an end to armed hostilities knowing that Saddam and his sons were ensconced deep inside their subterranean fortresses with unconventional weapons preparing their counter-offensive.
2. The Forces at Saddam’s Command
The map of “Saddam’s Underground Fortress” (appearing in previous article) represents our reconstruction of the presumed layout of the subterranean command centers and facilities where Saddam, his sons and military chiefs are thought to be putting together their plans for the next round of the war. The data we worked from is incomplete. US special forces and intelligence agents are still exploring the area, gathering and verifying leads and pointers. But DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources believe the represented locations to be as accurate as possible given the information available.
It postulates the location of at least two Special Republican Guards-Fedayeen Saddam bases plus one site containing missile systems and/or chemical and biological weapons systems. This group lies between the Lake Tharthar palace complex and Samarra. The intervening terrain is, according to one intelligence report, “mostly covered in gravel and heavily scored with numerous wells and water holes” which baffle the spy satellites and surveillance drones trying to identify underground structures and their exits. This outer circle was put there to defend the heart of the subterranean compound which lies further to the north in a “ripple dune” area, enclosed by Samarra, Tikrit and Samarra East military airfield in the east and Buhayrat Shari Lake 25 miles from Samarra in the northeast.
Situated under the “ripple dunes” is a cluster of at least two bases, known as the “Buried Central Command”, the motor that drives the system. It is well protected by an inner ring of four subterranean Special Republican Guards positions and five launching sites for missiles and a stock of chemical and biological weapons.
Until late May, few combat personnel occupied these facilities.
Intelligence sources tell DEBKA-Net-Weekly that they have been recently populated by skeleton command and operational centers representing all of the six Republican Guards divisions that took part in the war – al-Nida, Nebuchadnezzar, Hamurabi, al-Medina, Adnan and Baghdad – together with Fedayeen Saddam and Baathist militia contingents.
Some of those divisions had an estimated 35 percent of their combat capabilities knocked out by US air force pounding during the war. The remaining 20,000 troops and officers who survived preferred to stay home with their families while waiting to see which way the wind blew under US administration before declaring their military, political, national or religious allegiances.
By early June, US civil administrator Paul Bremer, who took over in Baghdad in mid-May, had made it clear he had no intention of mobilizing Saddam’s troops to the new Iraqi army or handing them paychecks. Realizing they had been dumped, thousands began wending their way towards Saddam’s Samarra enclave. The rumor spread like wildfire across Iraq: Saddam and sons were back, rebuilding the Iraqi army and offering double the salaries they earned before the war.
Saddam’s northern divisions of the Mosul-Kirkuk region suffered the most intense American bombardments. Some 35 percent are thought to have survived, leaving approximately 12-15,000 trained soldiers. Not all may want to follow the deposed ruler, but they too are potentially available if called on to fight.
Flocking to Flag – and Paycheck
Another 5,000 mainly Fedayeen Saddam and Baathist militiamen are believed to be present in the Samarra command center, picking off American soldiers day by day in a concerted guerrilla campaign. They are reinforced by 6,000 from Syria and supported by the crews numbering up to 2,000 men who maintained and administered the subterranean facilities before the war.
The deposed Iraqi ruler can therefore count on a potential fighting force of roughly 45,000 fighting men – a sizeable force whose strength must not be underestimated. For the moment, the indications are that he has managed to recruit some 12,000 ex-soldiers, the number that is reported to have begun drawing pay against Saddam’s account.
In some circumstances, this figure may balloon further.
A senior Western intelligence source familiar with the Iraq scene confided to DEBKA-Net-Weekly this week: “I don’t want to criticize ambassador Bremer’s management,” he said. “It essentially represents policy dictated from Washington and is based on rules set in concrete: The US administration may not recruit ex-soldiers who belonged to any of Saddam’s elite units for military or civil administration posts.
“The effect of those restrictions,” the source pointed out, is to provide the former Iraqi ruler with a possible reserve force of up to one million trained disaffected combatants who might be ready to fight for his comeback. Half are ex-army men, half members of the ruling Baath party which Bremer dissolved.
” I’m not saying they will all rally to the Saddam flag or that he can raise the mountain of cash he would need to pay them, but an almost bottomless manpower reservoir, active or passive, is there to be exploited and it looks as though he has begun to tap into it.
“Since the underground complexes contain vast amounts of military equipment and munitions – enough to sustain months of fighting – it must be admitted that some of the elite units we thought had scattered are again under arms.”
Another intelligence source, commenting on Iraq’s elusive weapons of mass destruction, told DEBKA-Net-Weekly: “You have to understand – there’s no intelligence information from one source that says, for example, that chemical or biological weapons are hidden at site A1. We don’t have that kind of solid information. But what we do have is precise intelligence about several hundred Special Republican Guardsmen and Fedayeen Saddam members whose job it was to man those systems before the war and during its early days. Now they’ve all suddenly disappeared from their homes. Some have been spotted among the soldiers now deployed around Samarra. That is a very worrisome sign.”
3. The Syrian and Russian connections
Saddam Hussein has retained an external lifeline that keeps his underground enclave and military well supplied with fighting strength, weapons, munitions and cash through a network of smuggling routes. That lifeline is managed by Syrian president Bashar Assad and his helpmeet, Syrian military intelligence. It is the same support system that sustained his regime from early 2001 until the onset of the Iraq War in March 2003 with smuggling routes for illicit oil exports and weapons imports.
Assad’s sanctions-busting operations netted him a cool $1 billion a year.
The Syrian leader never admitted to running Iraq’s smuggling trade any more than he owns up to granting asylum to high-ranking members of the overthrown regime in flight from Baghdad. US secretary of state Colin Powell, who visited Damascus on April 13 during the last week of the Iraq war to call Assad to account, told reporters on his outward plane journey that he “would never forget how president Bashar Assad lied” to him.
That scenario is now replicating itself. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources describe the functioning of the communications and transport links between Syria and Saddam’s military enclave as so well-oiled that they may be described as fully integrated.
Syrian and Iraqi military intelligence tacticians working together in Saddam’s underground command center have laid out three secret highways for moving contraband, information and personnel between the two countries in support of the Saddam restoration campaign:
(The attached map illustrates these routes. Click on the thumbnail for the full map.)
1. One route starting from the east Syrian frontier towns of As Sukkariya and Abu Kamal follows the Upper Euphrates River as it crosses the border to the west Iraqi city of Dughaymah, then swings toward the Iraqi cities of Ramadi and Falluja. The frontier in this area is so porous that front-wheel drive contraband vehicles can travel almost without hindrance between the two countries. The route serves mainly for moving fighters, medicines, and weapons – and because cars can be used – cash, gold and other precious metals worth millions of dollars, which is why it has become known as “the dollar channel”. It enables Saddam to order weapons he needs, spare parts for weapons systems and cash to fund his activities.
US special forces have tried unsuccessfully to plug up the border here, but the smugglers take advantage of the dense vegetation on both banks of the river and the rapids in some parts to scurry up its banks under cover and disappear. Other smugglers prefer to evade US spy drones by traversing the dry river beds and narrow canyons that crisscross the region.
2. This route starts out at Adlah and Fadgami in a Syrian border region which is inhabited by Syrian Arab tribes, whose role on the Iraqi side of the war was revealed in DEBKA-Net-Weekly No. 114 on June 27.
From a military and political perspective, this may be the most important of the three routes since it is favored by senior Saddam loyalists for regular border crossings. In the last three weeks, VIP traffic has petered out because of stepped up US military assaults. Nonetheless, fighters and weapons are still slipping through from Syria into Iraq using the Abu Hamdah Wadi that leads to the Sinjar region and directly onto Samarra.
3. The northernmost route begins in villages and townships clustering around the north Syrian town of Al Qamishli, continues through Shamar tribal lands abutting on the north Iraqi oil city of Mosul and winds up in Tikrit.
All three routes are well defended by Syrian Arab fighters often commanded by Iraqi intelligence officers. US forces have tried time and again to sever these routes or at least disrupt the traffic of convoys smuggling equipment and fighters into Iraq, with little success. Just as the smugglers traveling through the al Qaim region are able to melt into the underbrush, traffickers on the other two routes blend in with the Arab Bedouin tribes. Any American unit or even Kurdish force venturing into Arab tribal territory does so at its peril.
Intelligence assessments reaching us indicate that the Syrian president, by the smuggling routes he has opened up to his brother Baathist Saddam Hussein, has doubled the $1 billion a year he forfeited when the Americans shut down the Iraqi-Syrian oil pipeline. He is not shy about exacting a hefty charge for humans, guns and other contraband crossing through Syria, both coming and going.
The Primakov Factor
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources, US intelligence officials keeping a close eye on the smuggling routes have picked up covert infiltrations by certain Russian SVR undercover agents who appear to be keeping alive the old First Chief (foreign) Directorate’s ties with Saddam. Some intriguing evidence turned up in searches of captured Iraqi officers. More than one was found to be carrying coded Russian intelligence messages sent from Middle East and East European stations to the former Iraqi ruler. Another find was a very large quantity of stamped, blank passports issued by various republics, members of the Russian Commonwealth or its associates – the largest number stamped by Belarus.
The finding of these passports, which give fugitive Iraqis freedom of travel around the world, is a source of concern in the White House, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources, because it ties in with a troubling episode that occurred shortly before the war when US National Security Council members were still trying to persuade Saddam and his top staff to accept voluntary exile outside Iraq. In the light of current events, the plan to remove the Iraqi ruler without a war that was put forward at the time by former Russian prime minister and intelligence czar Yevgeny Primakov takes on a new and sinister light.
The Primakov initiative took place on February 22, when the Russian diplomat visited his old friend Saddam, who had always praised him as the only foreigner he trusted, and presented him with a five-part escape-and-refuge plan.
Saddam would admit to possessing weapons of mass destruction, hand them over to the United Nations for dismantlement, step down as president and go into domestic “exile” under the protection of an international force.
Primakov proposed the Lake Tharthar palace complex as Saddam’s place of sanctuary and internal exile. Saddam turned the plan down.
Now, the Americans suspect the Primakov plan had an ulterior motive. Taking into account that Russian intelligence most likely helped Saddam design his underground citadels in the early 1990s, Primakov, who was then KGB director, would have been aware that Saddam could move clandestinely in and out of the Tharthar palace at will through its underground passageways and exits. To all intents and purposes, he would have been a free man. Furthermore, Primakov would have been able to keep the exiled Iraqi ruler under his eye.
Ironically, Saddam appears to have taken Primakov’s advice a year and five months later, only now he is a fugitive fighting for his life – not a protected political exile living above ground. Had the Americans discovered the palace-cum-tunnel network while the war was still in progress, they might have been able to destroy it and deny the deposed ruler access to his hidden Buried Command Center.
4. US Options: Assault, Siege or Inaction.
In a perfect world for America, President George W. Bush would stand up one day soon and tell the nation that the 140,000-strong US force in Iraq under the command of Gen. John Abizaid had taken Saddam Hussein and his sons captive, together with his top military commanders and hundreds of bodyguards and his entire stock of weapons of mass destruction. The United States suffered some losses but a blow was struck to rid a part of the world of tyranny and terror.
In reality, Bush while on a visit to Botswana on Thursday, July 10, announced the death of two American soldiers – one north of Baghdad and the second near Tikrit, bringing the total of US losses since May 1, when he proclaimed the hostilities at an end, to 31.
“There is no question we have a security problem,” he admitted. “And we’ve just got to deal with it person to person. We’re going to have to remain tough.”
Two of the toughest questions posed by the current military situation in Iraq are:
1. What is stopping the American army from carrying out an assault on Saddam Hussein’s fortified underground bases around Samarra, capturing the former ruler and his sons and lifting the threat posed by the enclave to all of the Bush administration’s plans for the Middle East and global war on terror?
2. Why do US forces allow Saddam’s forces a free hand to fight them in the Baghdad-Ramadi-Falluja-Balad triangle, when it is clear that the campaign has gone beyond irregular, guerrilla warfare and tipped over into military operations well prepared by professional commanders?
On Sunday, July 5, General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that despite the string of deadly attacks on coalition forces, “the resistance in Iraq is far from monolithic or nationwide, instead appearing fragmented and limited to a small triangular area from Baghdad to the north and west.”
Three days later, the chief US civil administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, voiced the opposite view: “The continuing attacks are the work of professional assailants and loyalists of Mr Hussein and possibly terrorists who appear in some cases to have had military training.”
In the view of DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military experts, these divergent appraisals by two top American strategists on Iraq emanate from one of two circumstances: Either the Bush administration cannot decide how to handle the post-war situation, or else it has reached a decision but neglected to inform US personnel in the field.
Up until the publication of this issue, our sources report that US forces in Iraq are carefully skirting the enclave in which Saddam is thought to be holed up. No American troops are to be seen there or in Samarra, a town totally dominated by pro-Saddam loyalists.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources account for this omission by certain circumstances:
1. The first is a scenario. US Task Force 20, the unit formed to catch Saddam Hussein and sons and locate his unconventional weapons, hopes to put them to sleep by encouraging them in the illusion that they are gaining control in Iraq – and then, when they are off guard, to pounce. If this is the correct, then the US military must keeping well out of sight in other parts of the country as it makes ready to finish off the Iraqi ruler.
2. It is believed that the Americans are still short of precise intelligence on the ex-ruler’s subterranean fortresses and facilities, his precise whereabouts in the system and its secret openings. They also need to know more about his battle strength. US surveillance and intelligence teams may well be on covert missions in the target zone looking for this information.
3. As in the final days leading up to the war, American and foreign go-betweens are seeking access to people close to Saddam so as to explore the possibility of negotiating his surrender without a battle.
We have received exclusive information that these roundabout contacts are indeed taking place but have thus far yielded mixed rather than encouraging results. High-ranking Bush administration officials have been told that while the prospect of American forces raiding their underground hideouts strikes profound dread in the hearts of the men around the Saddam, the same men are gaining courage day by day and venturing to hope that their leader will eventually prevail.
This mood is having a psychological effect not only on Saddam loyalists, ex-military, Baathists and Sunni Muslims, but is also infecting non-Sunni religious and ethnic figures across the country with uncertainty. They are therefore keeping a close watch on happenings around Samarra to see how they turn out.
4. Saddam Hussein is thought by our intelligence experts to be guided by a strict rule: He will only use his weapons of mass destruction on Iraqi soil – never outside the country. The last time he used them against a foreign force was during the Iraq-Iran war when he used poison gas after Iranian troops invaded the country. The Americans fear that if they move in on his underground bases, he will let loose against US assault forces or targets around the country with the chemical weapons – or possibly biological weapons – he is believed to have cached with him.
In the light of this information, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military experts see four tough dilemmas confronting the Bush administration:
A. The surest and most efficient way to overcome the Saddam enclave and wipe out the burgeoning military threat it poses to US forces in the country is by unconventional warfare with, for instance, tactical nuclear weapons. It is also the least practicable. Washington cannot afford to be the first power to use weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Saddam, his illegal weapons and all his works would be wiped out for good, but so would the proof needed to convince American and world opinion that the Bush administration had good reason, namely the unconventional weapons in the hands of the Iraqi ruler, for going to war in the first place. Mistrust of Washington’s motives would only gain ground.
B. A massive conventional assault on the Saddam enclave might work, but it might equally expose US troops to the risk of Iraqi chemical or biological warfare. Substantial military reinforcements would also be called for, a contentious issue in Washington.
C. Washington might be better off not attacking the enclave at all but casting it into isolation by means of a protracted siege.
These dilemmas, according to our Washington sources, are the background to the debate dividing the Bush administration over whether to send more troops to Iraq. Most Pentagon and top military oppose further troop buildups in Iraq. Bremer wants their number increased by one third, although not because of the peril from the Samarra enclave, but to keep the population stabilized and deter possible civil, religious or ethnic strife.
Most experts agree that Washington’s current state of indecision is the worst possible course. It opens the way for Saddam to grasp the initiative and decide what happens next. It will then be up to him to determine whether to engage in a fight to the finish or make a run for it.
This would leave Washington sunk in exactly the same quandary as it faced ten days before going to war.