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Hunt begins for Saddam's tunnels

The mysterious tunnels are said to stretch for hundreds of kilometres, linking palaces, military strongholds and safe houses for leaders, treasure or WMD.

india Updated: Apr 09, 2003 13:56 IST

The mysterious tunnels of Iraq are rumoured to stretch for scores of kilometres, linking palaces, military strongholds and safe houses concealing leaders, treasure or weapons of mass destruction.

For US troops strapping on night goggles and venturing underground, the tunnels are a new kind of battlefield in this war. No maps, no light and no handle - yet - on what they might find. "For the type of regime we're dealing with, the tunnels represent an ideal spot to conceal weapons and serve as a hideout and in some cases an escape route," said Lt. Mark Kitchens, a spokesman for US Central Command.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is said to have built so many tunnels that just about anything could be underground - troops, weapons or even the Iraqi president himself.

"There were all sorts of tips and rumours, `dig under this and you will find that,"' said Ewen Buchanan, a spokesman for the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission. Buchanan said UN arms inspectors in 1998 found a combination of bunkers and tunnels below some of Saddam's palaces, but not the sophisticated network that had been speculated about. "But that doesn't say that they don't exist," he said.

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported on Tuesday that US Marines have secured a city south of Baghdad - Al-Tuwaitha - where a nexus of underground labs, warehouses and bomb-proof offices extends beneath a site owned by the Iraqi Atomic Energy Agency. It said 14 buildings betray high levels of radiation and nuclear residue. Weapons inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency recently toured the city, "but did they go underground?" the paper quoted David Albright, a former IAEA inspector in Iraq from 1992 to 1997 as saying.

On Tuesday, at the airport outside Baghdad, 150 soldiers of the 101st Airborne's 3rd Battalion, 3rd Brigade searched a 12-room complex inside a cave with white marble floors, 10-foot ceilings and fluorescent lighting. They found cigarette butts, tea bags and other signs of recent abandonment - but no Iraqis. "We're going to have to try to figure out where they go," brigade commander Lt. Col. Lee Fetterman told The Associated Press at the airport. "There's no telling."

On Monday, US forces captured an Iraqi colonel in one tunnel who was calling in artillery fire from his hideout. Also at the airport, a Knight-Ridder news service report described 30 men from 1st Platoon Apache Company entering a tunnel through a "Staff only" doorway below the airport's baggage claim. They found a corridor six meters high and six meters wide (20 x 20 feet) that stretched for hundreds of metres in each direction - but no Iraqis.

Reports, some stretching back years, allege the existence of tunnels and bunkers built by Serbian, German or Chinese engineering firms, leading from palaces to secret hideaways and more. US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld repeated those claims in December, arguing the futility of UN searches for weapons of mass destruction.

"They've got enormous miles and miles and miles of underground tunnelling," Rumsfeld said. "I don't know how inspectors on the surface of the Earth can even know what's going on in the underground facilities."

Hussein al-Shahristani, a scientist who was imprisoned by Saddam and fled during the 1991 Gulf War, told CBS' "60 Minutes" in February that plans originally called for a subway beneath Baghdad. Saddam "got all the drawings; he told his military, `Go ahead and do them but not for a metro, for our weapons of mass destruction. We can hide them, move them around,"' al-Shahristani said. "We believe now it is more than 100 kilometres of very complex network, multi-layer tunnels."

But al-Shahristani never saw the tunnels himself, he said. Few have, said Patrick Garrett of Globalsecurity.org, a military affairs think tank. "There is tons of conjecture on this subject right now," he said, but "there's been no official confirmation or official imagery."

After encountering the caves used by Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and the rumours of tunnels here, the US military took steps to ready their troops.

A site with kilometres of old mining caves in the Mojave Desert in Southern California was turned into a Tunnel Warfare Centre in 2001, training US troops in the challenges posed underground.