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Saddam may be hiding in Baghdad's vast underground network

Wednesday, April 09, 2003

By Michael Woods, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Saddam Hussein's last stand -- if he remains standing -- might end up involving not weapons of mass destruction, but weapons of mass transit.

Coalition troops may have to hunt down Saddam or other top Iraqi leaders in the miles of underground bunkers and tunnels said to honeycomb Baghdad -- including what was meant to be used as the city's subway system.

"I think that's one of the reasons why our troops captured the airport so quickly, and raced downtown to the presidential palaces -- to get access to the tunnel system," said Richard A. Muller, a physicist at the University of California at Berkeley who recently reported on tunnel warfare in the journal Technology Review.

After capturing Baghdad International Airport, U.S. military officials said one tunnel appeared to extend 10 miles to downtown Baghdad. As they ventured underground, U.S. troops grabbed a colonel who had been calling in artillery fire and discovered 12 rooms with white marble floors, 10-foot ceilings and fluorescent lighting.

The main source of information about the Baghdad tunnel system is Dr. Hussein Shahristani, formerly Iraq's top atomic scientist, who defected in 1991 after being imprisoned.

Shahristani said Saddam had built at least 60 miles of tunnels under Baghdad. The system began as a public subway, but the tunnels were later militarized and supplemented with a maze-like network of escape routes and chambers for hiding illegal weapons.

Modern tunnel-boring machines -- 150-ton monsters with diamond-tipped teeth -- can chew through almost 230 feet of soft soil in one day, Muller said. "Such tunnels are remarkably difficult to locate," he added, noting that entrances can be concealed in warehouses, office buildings, factories or homes. Saddam is known to have a number of elaborate bunkers connected to the Baghdad tunnel network.

The known technologies for detecting subterranean structures, while impressive, may be of limited value in densely packed urban areas like Baghdad, Muller said. They include:

Ground-penetrating radar that can see to depths of about 30 feet in dry desert soil.

Infrared sensors that can detect heat from human activities.

Special cameras that can sense chemical releases from ventilation system exhaust.

Listening devices that can snoop for noise.

Seismic devices that can pound the ground and record bounceback waves.

Gravimeters that can measure variations in the gravitational field between two or more points to pinpoint underground installations.

But Saddam has tunneled deep in Baghdad. Sewers, water pipes and other underground utilities, along with urban noise, would complicate detection efforts. Tips from informants are probably the best hope in figuring out where to find Saddam or his top lieutenants, Muller said.

Once U.S. forces think they know where Iraqi leaders are holed up, tunnel-busting weapons are available, including specialized bombs and agents that could be put into ventilation shafts to incapacitate or kill occupants.

The Russians used "stereophonic bombs" during their war in Afghanistan. One charge would explode, sealing a tunnel entrance, followed by another explosion that would create a deadly pressure wave.

U. S. forces possess a "thermobaric" bomb, used for the first time in Afghanistan in 2002. A primary explosion releases fuel for a secondary explosion that creates a vast aerial conflagration, which sucks up oxygen and suffocates people in confined spaces.

Even if they chose to use such devices, U.S. troops still would have to conduct clean-up searches, a task Muller described as difficult. Tunnel networks occupy three dimensions, where searchers easily get disoriented. And Global Positioning System navigation is useless underground.

Soldiers dubbed "tunnel rats" who searched Viet Cong tunnel networks during the Vietnam War carried only a flashlight and a .45-caliber pistol. Coalition forces are undoubtedly better equipped -- with such devices as night-vision goggles and handheld noise or infrared detectors -- but searching tunnels remains arduous work, Muller said.

The Pentagon's relatively new Tunnel Warfare Center, established in 2001, may have developed secret new technologies or tactics.

"Prior to 9/11, tunnel warfare was not an issue," said U. S. Navy Cmdr. Bill Manofsky, who helped establish the center at the Navy's weapons facility in China Lake, Calif. The war in Afghanistan, however, saw al-Qaida and Taliban forces holed up in tunnels and caves, focusing attention on the need for special training and weapons.

Military planners also were mindful of the coming conflict in Iraq, and other countries girding for battles below the surface.

"The North Koreans are such a threat," Allen D. Reece warned in an analysis of subterranean military operations prepared at the U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies. "Through 40 years of experience, they have developed extensive tunnel networks that will be a part of their infiltration routes in Seoul should they decide to invade the South."

Military tunneling is as ancient as war itself, Muller said. To "'undermine" originally meant to breach a military wall from below. The explosives used in such exploits eventually became known as "mines."

The art of tunnel warfare progressed considerably during the Cold War, as the United States, the Soviet Union and their allies developed extensive underground bunkers and tunnels to protect against nuclear attack. Saddam is widely known to have admired the underground complexes built by Marshal Tito, Yugoslavia's former strongman.

In recent years, some countries also have been inspired to tunnel underground to hide secret activities and escape the prying eyes of spy satellites.


Michael Woods can be reached at mwoods@nationalpress.com or 1-202-662-7072.

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