Whenever US spy satellites home in on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein – they see double.
Analyses of photos and television footage collected from his rare public appearances
with cabinet ministers and foreign guests invariably show a Saddam look-alike. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report the real Saddam Hussein has not been seen in the flesh for all of six weeks. And no one knows where he is.
Those sources quote US intelligence as surmising that the Iraqi leader has put in motion his long-held plan to vanish to a secret location against an impending US military offensive, so as to forestall American efforts to kill him at the start of the campaign. After all, “regime change” is one of the Bush administration’s avowed strategic targets in Baghdad.
US spy satellites have turned up a small army of least 15 Saddam doubles – and there may be another 20 phony “Saddams”- all grouped in a special unit under the president’s personal command. He is able to pop up in person at fifteen minutes’ notice anywhere, as the fakes are kept moving around his twenty-six sumptuous palaces.
Spotting the imposter, says US intelligence, is no problem. Photo analysts measure the circumference of the face, check body contour changes from one picture to the next, and examine the way the subject’s clothes fit him. The real Saddam is a natty dresser who wears only finely tailored suits. The doubles’ garments are poor-quality imitations. Their wardrobes are meager and they are often photographed wearing the same suits and uniforms.
Saddam’s current vanishing act marks the longest period he has dropped out of sight in the last five years.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report that, immediately after he disappeared, US spy satellites and listening posts across the Gulf intercepted hundreds of telephone calls and radio transmissions between Saddam and senior Iraqi government and military officials. But analyses of word construction, voices and background sound established they too were phony; the Iraqi ruler’s side of the conversation was pre-recorded. In one such conversation with deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz, Saddam’s voice is muffled. Aziz can be heard grumbling that he can’t make out a word and asking an assistant to “restart”. A few minutes later, Saddam comes back, “repeating” the same words heard earlier.
US intelligence assumes these staged conversations are transmitted via widely scattered switchboards or studios, so as to keep eavesdroppers in the dark about Saddam’s whereabouts. For keeping in touch with his government and senior military staff, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence experts assume he uses couriers and secret, coded electronic messages on the Internet.
The experts find striking analogies between the perplexing disappearances of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Both are known to resort to look-alikes and to use the Internet communication for coded messaging. The two men, both violently anti-American, may even be in some sort of communication
For Washington, it is as important to locate Saddam Hussein as it is to find bin Laden. US war planners would not want to relive the Afghan experience of going to war, only to lose their primary adversary. At the same time, Iraq is different from Afghanistan, US intelligence experts insist. The Iraqi ruler cannot count on neighboring countries, governments and intelligence services to help him escape – in the same way that the Qaeda leader relied on certain circles in Pakistan. He is not loved in the Arab Street – outside Palestinian areas. Iraq is not guarded by a rampart of mountain ranges with cavernous long-term hideouts. Its only mountains are situated in the north, a region controlled by Kurdish tribesmen. Many are Saddam’s sworn enemies, but he could never trust any Kurd not to turn him in to the Americans.
His only recourse for now, according to American strategists, is to shelter in one of the four underground cities he built for a war emergency. Information about their location and internal layout is sketchy, but US intelligence places one of the cities in central Iraq – not far from the big al-Baghdadi military base. According to one intelligence assessment, Saddam’s presence in that location is signaled by his son Uday, recently appointed to command the 300,000-strong divisions of the presidential republican guard, moving his headquarters out of the capital to the al-Baghdadi base.
A second underground city may be located in northern Iraq, near the oil center of Mosul.
Those buried cities, built with the help of Russian, Italian and North Korean engineers, are not merely a cluster of bunker systems connected by long tunnels. They are commodious and comfortable, provided with all the proper urban amenities for a population of some 2,500 people. Constructed to withstand nuclear and lengthy conventional attacks, they contain residential buildings, offices, command centers, food and fuel stores, weapons systems and munitions, including missiles and tanks. People and vehicles move through the underground cities along broad avenues. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report a sub-surface highway linking two of the underground cities, an exit route for evacuation from one to the other, in the event of one of the complexes being discovered or damaged. That highway is thought to run underneath one of Iraq’s great rivers, the Tigris or the Euphrates.
The presumption that Saddam has gone into hiding in one of the four cities, taking with him his family and close circle, was recently bolstered by information reaching US intelligence from Baghdad. The Iraqi leadership, said the source of that information, was disturbed by the statement made on February 21 by John Bolton, US undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, to the effect that the United States was abandoning its longstanding commitment not to use nuclear arms against non-nuclear states.
Iraqi leaders took these words as clearing the way for the United States to use nuclear weapons to destroy Saddam’s underground cities.