MOLES LED WAY TO HIT' SADDAM
By BRIAN BLOMQUIST and NILES LATHEM
March 23, 2003
WASHINGTON - When President Bush signed the order Tuesday night for a direct missile hit on a secret underground bunker in suburban Baghdad, just three minutes remained before the clock ran out on a mission that had been months in the planning.
It was the covert work of an unknown number of CIA-trained Iraqi operatives and American agents inside Baghdad that had given the commander in chief the sudden opportunity to launch a strategic strike against Saddam Hussein and his regime.
It is not yet known whether Saddam, his sons, or any other high-ranking officials were in the bunker constructed under a safe house obliterated by cruise missiles launched on Bush's orders. But striking the "target of opportunity" undeniably changed the opening days of the war.
Rather than shock and awe, this was the culmination of a mission both highly secret and indescribably dangerous.
For months, it had been widely known that U.S. Special Forces had established a base in anti-Saddam, Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. But other undercover operatives had pushed farther south - into Baghdad - where some are believed to have been living as Iraqi citizens or hiding in safe houses.
Armed with state-of-the-art telecommunications equipment and tiny laptops, the elite American agents and CIA-trained Iraqi exiles began cultivating contacts within Saddam's Republican Guard and collecting valuable reconnaissance information.
The breakthrough came with a successful hack into the Iraqi government's Chinese-built fiber-optic communications cable. Suddenly, the Americans were able to eavesdrop on Iraqi land-line phone conversations and e-mail messages.
That information, coupled with intelligence provided by the "insiders," ignited a flurry of activity from Baghdad to Bush's office in the White House as the final hours to the war deadline evaporated.
In secure video linkup with his top soldier Gen. Tommy Franks in Qatar, Bush and his advisers - including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and CIA boss George Tenet - discussed their options for nearly three hours on Tuesday afternoon, sources say.
As diplomats played out the last acts of the fruitless charade at the United Nations, the wheels of the U.S. military had begun to turn.
While they awaited a final decision from the president on whether to attack, commanders in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf had ordnance experts put on standby to reprogram the target coordinates of cruise missiles they had cocked and ready for fire.
At 7:12 p.m., Bush "pushed the button" on the final stage of the covert mission.
The cruise missiles, armed with computer technology that would program their point of impact to within inches, were launched on their two-hour trek to Baghdad. At the same time, stealth bombers took off from Qatar with a mission to fly under Iraqi radar and drop additional bombs on the suspected Saddam bunker.
In taking the "opportunity," war chiefs made sure they wouldn't miss.
U.S. intelligence officials say they don't know for sure whether Saddam was killed or injured in the attack - or was even in the bunker when the missiles crashed into their target at 9:35 p.m.
One source, possibly one of the U.S. operatives, claimed he had seen Saddam carried out of the wrecked bunker on a stretcher with an oxygen mask on his face.
But sources say that even if Saddam is alive, there are other plans for lopping off the head of the Iraqi regime, possibly using CIA and Delta Force military assassins, scouts, eavesdroppers and saboteurs who have already pushed inside Baghdad.
Those operations understandably are highly classified and lives will be at risk again.
Despite the huge gains made by the United States in the opening days of the war, getting close to the Butcher of Baghdad for another covert strike again could be even tougher than in the hours before the conflict began, experts say.
Saddam is a paranoid dictator with a touchy trigger finger. If he gets even a whiff of disloyalty, suspects disappear. If he survived the massive missile strike last week, he's very likely to have already purged his security team, experts say.
U.S. intelligence sources believe there is still fertile ground among the upper echelons of the Iraqi military to cultivate contacts who could expose Saddam.
Bags of cash, always carried by CIA operatives in missions like this, are an added enticement. So, too, is impunity from war-crime prosecutions when the conflict is over.
But U.S. operatives are not on their own in the hunt for Saddam.
Although the Israelis have stayed quietly on the sidelines over the last week, their Mossad spy network is adept at getting in and out of various parts of Iraq without detection and have long cultivated Arab sources. Information almost certainly has been passed on.
One elite Israeli Scud-hunting team called the Shaldag - Hebrew for Kingfisher - has helped point out suspected hiding places for Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. U.S. Special Forces are likely to hone in on those as the front advances toward Baghdad.
And in recent weeks, Jordanian, British and Australian commandos also have operated deep inside Iraq.
After possibly letting Osama bin Laden escape during the war in Afghanistan, no one is willing to make any predictions about Saddam.
But with American and other forces now crawling all over Iraq, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld - who always chooses his words carefully - was bold enough to predict on Friday, "The regime is starting to lose control of the country."
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