Task Force 20 commanders read certain signs on the ground as indications that Saddam – and his two sons possibly too – have returned to Iraq and are staying in touch with the outside world via Damascus and his allies, the Syrian Arab Bedouin, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report.
US intelligence estimates that even after handing over some 15 high Iraqi officials and military commanders to the Americans in April and May, between 70 and 100 top Iraqis still enjoy a safe haven in Syria. Their presence outside Damascus enables President Bashar Assad to take a chance on protesting that the entire Iraqi elite has departed the country, when in fact a few are living quietly in Aleppo and the main body, several dozen fugitives, have been fixed up with havens in Alawite tribal villages and towns with kinship ties to Assad.
Among them, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources say, is a heavy sprinkling of Iraqi Special Republic Guards officers who oversaw the shipment of the portion of Iraq’s prohibited weapons that was interred in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley.
It is clear therefore that the capture of elite Saddam officials would be an important key to the discovery of his forbidden weapons.
The US administration has repeatedly pressed Damascus to surrender the Iraqi officers or expel them and so expose them to American capture. Washington handed Damascus a named list of wanted men which was studiously ignored by the Syrian ruler.
Task Force 20 commanders are also aware that prohibited weapons are moving around through secret paths inside Iraq itself. According to some intelligence reports, certain unconventional arms were kept back for the protection of Saddam, his sons and the city of Baghdad. In March, the arsenal was shifted to the al-Anbar area of Iraq and buried deep underground. It was transported by the same tankers that carried other portions of the arsenal to Lebanon.
The al-Anbar region stretches from west of al-Ramadi up to al-Qaim and lies athwart the primary Syria-Iraq route traversed by the Syrian Arab tribesmen. US intelligence believes that this interfacing is deliberately planned to confuse US special forces watching out for weapons of mass destruction smuggled out of the country.
The importance of Saddam’s return to Iraq, if borne out, is thought to outweigh even the new input on the hidden locations of his WMD. If he is indeed in the country, then the search area is limited, offering a better chance of eventual success, no matter how long it takes. The significance for the future of Iraq and the global war against terrorism and Osama bin Laden cannot be over-estimated.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources stress, however, that Task Force 20 and the US government have no concrete proof that Saddam and his sons are indeed back in Iraq – only indications. If so, they are thought to have gone to ground in one the secret underground tunnel systems dug in the late 1990s as safe hideouts for the Iraqi leadership.
Al Qaim – still a place of mystery
One is situated at al Qaim on the Iraqi-Syrian border, whose deep canyons have been repeatedly combed by American, Australian and British commandos. But US intelligence is convinced they have not reached every hidden corner of this region. In their strike against the suspect convoy on June 18, the Americans therefore threw all their air power against the three vehicles as they raced for the border through al Qaim.
According to American and British media, the attack was prompted by audio tapes reaching Task Force 20 in which Saddam’s son Uday was heard speaking about an Iraqi VIP convoy poised to cross into Syria. Some media reported Saddam was in the group in person.
But the attack would have been mounted even without such evidence in response to a standing order to attack any unidentified Iraqi convoy in motion in the region on either side of the Iraq-Syrian frontier.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources report that Task Force 20 was assigned the mission because the convoy was caught up with after it had crossed into Syria and the US commandos were already in-theater, in Syria’s upper Euphrates area. The convoy was destroyed but Syrian forces stepped in for the first time and attacked the US force – according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources – on direct orders from Assad and Syrian military chiefs who were monitoring the incident from the war room of general headquarters in Damascus..
But the Syrian president, intent on averting an engagement between US and Syrian fighter planes, ordered all Syrian military traffic to stop when US warplanes crossed into his country’s airspace – unlike Syrian infantry.
Our military sources report that the Syria combatants came away from the battle badly bloodied, losing between 25 and 30 dead. Neither Washington nor Damascus is raising much diplomatic dust over the episode, although the Syrian border guards in custody are undergoing interrogation. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources note that American military action widely expected last March when Syria was found to be pushing Arab fighters into Iraq to fight against the United States was launched in fact on June 18.
Who was in the convoy?
Not a word has been vouchsafed regarding the identities of passengers traveling in the convoy to Syria. The only thing that is clear is that Saddam and his sons were not among them.
US intelligence is eyeing two additional underground systems that could accommodate Saddam: the city of Ar Ramadi and an area between Tikrit and Samara.
All three hideouts could well be red herrings. US intelligence and Task Force 20 can be sure of only one fact – which was reported exclusively by DEBKAfile during the Iraq war: On the night of March 27, Saddam left Baghdad and crossed into Syria. It is generally assumed now that he spent no more than ten to twelve days in Syria; Assad, fearing discovery and reprisal by the Americans, cut the visit short. Where did he go from there?
DEBKAfile and DEBKA-Net-Weekly reported that Saddam and at least one of his sons made a beeline for Minsk, Belarus. Then, in late May, our sources reported signs of his presence in Libya.
All those signs were checked out thoroughly by the Americans. By then, he was not found in the Belarusian capital. But on Monday, June 16, his personal aide and confidant, Abid Hamid Mahmud al-Tikriti, was picked up while traveling from Damascus through Syrian Arab tribal territory to Tikrit. Found on him were several dozen Belarusian passports. They were stamped but had no names or photographs – evidence that top Iraqis have been traveling to Minsk via Syria. As for information that Saddam is in Libya, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources report that several members of his entourage, including medical staff always at his side, have been spotted in Tripoli. But no evidence has emerged that Saddam is there, too.