Saddam's Bunkers

When one of the most secure and luxurious of his palace-and-bunker complexes was completed in 1984, at a cost of $70 million, Saddam Hussein moved in right away. But even protected by enormous layers of concrete, sand and steel, behind zigzag corridors and blast doors made to withstand a Hiroshima-size explosion, and guarded by men who knew they'd have to be ready to die for him, or be killed by him, Saddam apparently could not sleep. "All night long he heard a sound like the cocking of a pistol," remembers Wolfgang Wendler, the German engineer who supervised the project. Wendler was summoned by angry officials to find out what was wrong. He discovered a faulty thermostat.

Today the bunker beneath the "305 Guest House" in Baghdad's main palace compound is part of an underground world of tunnels, shelters and storage depots where Saddam may be hiding his most fearsome weapons, as well as himself. Iraqi scientist Hussein Shahristani and other exiles even talk of a phantom subway that was built but never opened in the 1980s. ("I'm still waiting to take a ride in it," says a skeptical former U.N. inspector.) What is certain is that many underground bunkers and tunnels do exist, and they could be a subterranean nightmare for American and British forces. Day and night some of the most powerful "bunker-busting" bombs in the U.S. arsenal are being brought to bear on the massively fortified infrastructure. Some of the bunkers are buried so far beneath the city that when British Member of Parliament George Galloway met with Saddam in one of them last August, he wrote about taking a high-speed elevator "so deeply under ground my ears were popping."

"We should assume that Saddam has created an underground network where he could potentially survive for months on end," says a former U.S. official who worked on the issue. "Let's hope that we don't find ourselves in a situation like we were when we chased the Viet Cong 30 years ago." But the fearsome tunnels of Vietnam were tiny and primitive compared with these. And the Iraqi capital is not the only city in the country built above a warren of catacombs and secret passages--some of them centuries old--as well as other high-tech hiding places for troops, supplies and senior officials. Najaf and Karbala, currently on the front lines, and Samarra, near Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, are cities famous for homes with multilevel basements linked by deep corridors that crisscross beneath the streets.

Some Egyptians who've worked on the capital's underground fortifications talk fancifully about plans to build a "mirror Baghdad" buried almost as deep as the skyline is high. U.N. weapons inspectors never found anything so imaginative, but not for want of trying. "You get a tip which says there's an underground facility below point X, and you go and scout point X and you don't find anything," says the inspectors' spokesman, Ewen Buchanan. "It doesn't mean that it doesn't exist, but that it can't be found." In 1998, on a visit to eight "presidential sites" in Iraq, U.N. inspectors used an array of underground sensing equipment, searching for bunkers the way they'd look for abandoned mineshafts. The single large bunker they came across was another in the vast Republican Palace compound, not far from 305 Guest House. They found no weapons, but were impressed with the construction techniques, which included massive concrete walls mounted "on springs" to absorb the shock of both conventional and nuclear attacks.

Earlier this year teams under chief inspector Hans Blix visited "a couple of dozen bunkers" all over the country, according to Buchanan, including military ones where empty chemical warheads were found. They also investigated the Sijood Palace in Baghdad, where they discovered no illicit armaments, but they did find what Buchanan calls "whole layers of basements." Last week the Sijood Palace was targeted by the bunker-busters. Other sites of underground complexes, such as the --conference center and the main presidential palace itself, were hit repeatedly by American bombs in earlier attacks and have been targeted again now.

Before the last gulf war, U.S. intelligence was able to obtain details about many of the bunkers from people who designed them. On the eve of this battle, Washington put heavy pressure on the government in Belgrade to hand over plans to underground complexes built by the Yugoslav company Energoprojekt in the 1970s and '80s. Wolfgang Wendler, who oversaw construction of the bunker complex under 305 Guest House, claims he turned over the plans to the CIA 12 years ago, just before the last gulf war. But he says it could still be serving as Saddam's troglodyte hideaway.

"He had all kinds of palaces, but this was where he lived," Wendler told NEWSWEEK, and he says he was shocked to see a satellite photograph of the palace grounds taken last September and published in NEWSWEEK. It showed the 305 Guest House standing exactly as it was the last time Wendler saw it in the 1980s, unscathed by any of the earlier attacks on Baghdad.

Even if the complex is targeted now, Wendler doubts it can be destroyed from the air. The "guest house" aboveground is a substantial reinforced-concrete building, with three floors and about 40,000 square feet of floor space. Underneath is a 15,000-square-foot, 14-room bunker. Buried more than 30 feet beneath the ground, it has reinforced-concrete walls at least five feet thick. Wendler remembers most of the rooms in the 305 Guest House furnished sparsely with fake antiques; other rooms served as a command-and-control center and held enough supplies to survive at least two months underground. The ventilation system was designed to protect against both chemical and biological weapons.

In the end, if the dictator holes up in a place like this and the bunker-busting bombs don't do the job, Coalition military sources say, the only way to get him out may be for American or British Special Forces to fight their way in, burning through the massive doors and blasting their way from room to room. The job could be extremely dangerous. But this time, if Saddam hears the click of a pistol cocking, it will probably be the real thing.