A vacation villa in southern Baghdad, located on the Tigris River island of Um al-Khanazir, was the target of Thursday’s pre-dawn “surgical attack” on Iraqi leadership by 40 US cruise missiles and F-117 stealth bombers – according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources.
The attack was planned after the CIA learned early Wednesday that Saddam Hussein’s younger son, Qusay, had summoned Iraq’s political and military leadership for a meeting at the villa, one of Iraqi military intelligence’s secret sites. In the run-up to the US war on Iraq, Saddam had placed Qusay in charge of defenses of the Baghdad region. He was given supreme command of the four divisions defending the capital: the Special Republican Guard’s Hammourabi, Nebuchadnezzar and al-Medina divisions and the Saddam Hussein Fedayeen suicides.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources have discovered that Saddam Hussein was not supposed to attend the conference and he was therefore not targeted by this operation. The ruler was in fact outside the Iraqi capital at the time. Our sources have obtained exclusively the names of the top officials who were present at Qusay’s consultation. They were: vice presidents Taha Yassin Ramadan and Izat Ibrahim, Ibrahim al-Duri, two commanders of Special Republican Guard’s divisions and the commander of the Fedayeen.
They were coming together for a last-minute tightening of coordination among the groups charged with the defense of the capital against the coming US attack.
Our information is that the meeting was supposed to have got underway at 5:30 a.m. Baghdad time. It was timed deliberately to take place at an hour when the Jadriya Bridge, the island’s only link to the southeastern bank of the Tigris, and nearby roads are virtually deserted, affording its participants a fast escape route in an emergency.
A few hours earlier, US President George W. Bush, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and CIA director George Tenet convened at the White House to decide whether to use the rare, specific intelligence received to carry out what came to be called a decapitation operation. The alternative was to waste this rare opportunity.
It was a tough call. A successful “decapitation” of, say, one of Saddam’s powerful sons or any top official could undermine the confidence of all Iraq’s leaders, from Saddam down, in their personal safety and make them feel vulnerable. Taking out the whole group of hard men gathered at the villa would knock a large hole in Baghdad’s defenses, ahead of the war and might save the lives of many American and British soldiers.
On the other hand, striking while the iron was hot presented weighty military and intelligence difficulties, not the least of which would be the necessity, if it failed, to launch the general allied offensive earlier than planned by at least two days.
Before reaching a decision, the conference at the White House had to sort out some dilemmas:
A. Should the strike against the targeted leadership group be confined to the meeting place or extend to a more sweeping bombardment of Baghdad?
B. Should the raid aim to hit the building precisely when the whole group was together at the conference? Or target the convoys en route to the venue? Another option was to destroy the Jadriya bridge after part of the group had crossed it. That might have split the target in two – which was not the best option. It was therefore decided to try and get the whole group at once after the meeting began in the villa.
C. Finally, a timeline had to be set. The window would be open no more than three to four hours. Several more hours were needed to set up the elaborate operation. Finally, at just before 15:00 EST, President Bush reached his decision, leaving seven and a half hours to get the operation organized. It was clear to all those present that for the mission to come off, all the parties would need to observe split-second timing – including the Iraqi targets.
The stealth bombers had to be in the sky over Baghdad well in advance, whereas the Tomahawk cruise missiles had to be fired 10 to 12 minutes after the signal reached the CIA that the meeting was in mid-session.
After the event, the missiles were reported to have been fired from cruisers and submarines in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, some of the missiles were fired from vessels cruising in the eastern Mediterranean opposite Turkey and reached the skies of Baghdad through Turkish airspace.
It was realized that the whole plan would fall apart if the time or the place of the Iraqi leadership conference were changed at the last minute. Saddam and his top officials are fond of bringing meetings forward at the last minute or shortening a session without prior notice.
According to our sources, that is exactly what happened, causing the plan to misfire. One and quarter hours into the conference, its participants decided to break it up. Just under ten minutes before the missiles and bombs had reached the target zone, 05:20 Baghdad time, most of the Iraqi officials present went their separate ways. Qusay Hussein, Izat Ibrahim and Ibrahim Duri drove off in their cars attended by their bodyguards.
However, Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan and a group of Special Republican Guards and Fedayeen Armored Division officers were slow to get up and leave. They were still in the villa when it was struck by the missiles, which also destroyed their waiting vehicles.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report that the only Iraqi to die in that carefully-laid assault was Vice President Ramadan, while the army officers and five bodyguards who stayed behind with him were injured.
In operational terms, “mission decapitation” was a washout. Qusay and most of the other top officials were unhurt. From the military standpoint, it forced the US war command to bring the main offensive forward. But, although it missed its target, the operation strongly affected Saddam and his top men psychologically. Qusay was seen to have escaped certain death by a hair’s breadth and the rest of Saddam’s ruling clique felt the hot breath of the approaching Americans even before the onset of the campaign, as well as the unpleasant sensation that someone very close to them was watching their every move and reporting it to the Americans.