DEBKAfile 13 April 2003
Since the Saddam Hussein statues were torn down around Iraq, many Israelis have stopped carrying their gas masks despite almost daily exhortations by defense minister Shaul Mofaz to keep them close and not dismantle their sealed rooms since the danger is not over. His concern has draw sneers from some army veterans and pundits, making him the butt of jokes about overreaction. Some information about the sinister tools of death that are believed cached in remote al Qaim up against the Syrian border might lead to a better appreciation of the peril. However, Israeli officials are keeping what is known or suspected strictly to themselves.
Drawing on its intelligence sources, DEBKAfile lifts a few of the veils shrouding this remote corner of Iraq and the difficulties of its exploration.
Aerial photos over al Qaim in northwestern Iraq have revealed a cluster of long, hangar-like structures with large steel doors some 12-14 meters high and 15-20 meters wide, the size of sheds housing heavy fire trucks. In frequent passes overhead, spy satellites and reconnaissance aircraft have picked up surface indications of the hidden presence of nuclear, chemical or biological materials. They have not ruled out al Hussein surface to surface missiles being held ready there to deliver unconventional warheads. Some of the Scuds fired against Israel in 1991 were launched here. Signs of chemical emissions have been detected in the deep canyons riddling the Al Qaim region, most of them concealed from overhead view by overhanging cliffs. More impenetrable hiding places are to be found along the Euphrates river banks, which are densely overgrown thanks to the rapids splashing down from the mountains.
Coalition forces have refrained from going straight in to Al Qaim to establish once and for all what weapons are hidden there for several reasons. Its installations are the most heavily guarded in Iraq more even than Saddam Husseins own bunker fortresses in Tikrit. The brigade of especially trained, crack Special Republican Guards loyalists guarding al Qaim have proved impervious to tempting coalition offers to surrender, preferring to defend the site with their lives. The coalition command has tried limited air and ground assault, including even what is termed unconventional warfare direct-action missions, but until this weekend made little progress.
Unlike other parts of Iraq, where resistance quickly melted away, the defenders of al Qaim have put up a professional, tenacious and dedicated fight. Military sources told DEBKAfile that had coalition forces confronted this quality of combat in the rest of Iraq, they would still be pinned down at Nasiriya in the south after three weeks of fighting. The Iraqi defenders are making skilful use of al Qaims daunting topographical features which make it impassable for heavy tanks. The attacking force is therefore obliged to fight in this Tora Bora-like redoubt from canyon to canyon, hilltop to hilltop, bush to bush.
In the last 24 hours, US forces have seized the strategic intersection of Highways 11 and 13 leading into Syria, a major step towards cutting off the overland escape route of Iraqi forces and top members of Saddams hierarchy. However, it is not impermeable. The Euphrates River and its banks provide alternative routes for slipping across into Syria.
The Americans are not using their heavy air and missile power to hit the hangar-like structures until they know for sure what they contain. If what they suspect is true, an American bombardment could serve Saddams purpose even better than launching his own missiles. American bombs plus al Qaims variable wind currents could release dangerous substances into the air over American troop concentrations in Iraq, as well as Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and even Turkey, Lebanon and Syria, without Iraqi having to send a single missile.
Al Qaim and its horrific secrets look like Saddams last card, or the first on the deck of 55 leaders handed out to American troops. There is no knowing if he will play this ace, activating WMD when American forces are within a pace of laying hands on him or his sons, or have managed to penetrate al Qaims mysterious structures.
As to the nuclear radiation detected at al Qaim, the Iraqis are known to have
extracted uranium for their nuclear weapons program in the 1980s. More recently,
satellite photographs suggested Iraq may have rebuilt a uranium extraction facility
there, possibly under the big hangars or at the bottom of the canyons. For all
these reasons, coalition forces are tackling their task in this region 170 km
northwest of Baghdad with extreme caution.