WASHINGTON—The last phase of the war for Iraq may be fought underground.
U.S. troops advancing upon Baghdad have encountered an elaborate network of tunnels and underground bunkers that could be used as last redoubts and possible escape routes for Saddam Hussein, if he is still alive, and other leaders of his regime.
Situated beneath Baghdad's main airport, one of Hussein's major presidential palaces and other locations in the city, the fortified subterranean complex was designed to withstand even direct hits by heavy-duty bombs.
"We don't know who we'll find there," said Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, chief spokesman for the U.S. Central Command.
The full extent of the network is not known, but one tunnel is believed to lead to the Tigris River and could have been used by ranking members of the ruling Baath Party to flee as the capital was being taken over by American soldiers and Marines.
Among Iraqi leaders whose whereabouts are unknown are Hussein and his two sons, Qusai and Udai, as well as Deputy Iraqi Prime Minister Tariq Aziz. Although he was briefing reporters Tuesday, Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf had disappeared by Wednesday morning.
Top Iraqis have vanished
Other Iraqi officials, many of whom could face trial for war crimes and human-rights violations, also seem to have vanished.
"We're going to have to try to figure out where they go," said Lt. Col. Lee Fetterman, commander of the 101st Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade after his troops cleared a 12-room cave complex near the airport that was deserted but showed signs of recent occupation.
At his Pentagon briefing Wednesday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said some Iraqi leaders may have tried to flee to Syria.
They also may seek to escape to northern Iraq, where fighting continues and the U.S. has only Special Operations forces and an airborne brigade in the field, analysts said. And they may try to hole up in safe houses in Baghdad, a city of 5 million, or remove their uniforms and disperse among the population.
The situation in Baghdad seems in some ways comparable to the fall of Berlin in World War II. Adolf Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945, but his top lieutenant, Martin Bormann, escaped and was never seen again. Hostilities continued until U.S. soldiers captured Hermann Goering in the southern German mountains on May 7.
Hussein has been constructing his underground labyrinth for about 20 years, spending as much as $70 million for one luxurious bunker complex with its own electrical and air-conditioning system. Fortified by steel and concrete and situated 200 feet beneath one of his palaces, it was considered beyond the reach of conventional bombs.
In addition to providing possible refuge and escape for Iraqi fugitives, the tunnels and bunkers could be booby-trapped, military strategists said. They also could be used for the storage and deployment of chemical and biological weapons.
Pentagon experts consider a tunnel the worst possible environment in which to encounter weapons of mass destruction. "Even if there are no bad guys, going down into a tunnel is dangerous," said Col. Paul Melody, director of the U.S. Army's Combined Arms and Tactics Directorate.
The U.S. military first encountered tunnel warfare in the Vietnam War, when it discovered the Viet Cong was operating from secret tunnel systems that amounted to underground cities. Groups of American "tunnel rats," equipped with little more than miners' lamps and .45-caliber automatics, were organized to neutralize them but proved mostly ineffective.
The American Special Operations forces, airborne units and other tunnel fighters being sent underground in Iraq are much better prepared and equipped, Melody said.
U.S. has tunnel warfare center
Many are benefiting from training made possible through the creation, in 2001, of the Navy's NAVAIR Tunnel Warfare Center at China Lake, Calif., which was selected for mock tunnel warfare exercises because of its roughly 300 mine shafts and tunnels dating to Old West mining days and because its topography greatly resembles that of Afghanistan.
Troops who trained there and engaged in cave and tunnel combat operations in eastern Afghanistan are likely to be employed in Iraq. They have an array of high-tech equipment to make their job easier.
"They have various lasers and night vision devices to help find things like trip wires," Melody said. "We've also used robots with cameras on them to help with the reconnaissance. In Vietnam, the technology didn't exist to do that."
Should an enemy be detected or suspected, U.S. troops can employ remote-control pressure weapons that fill an airspace with small, explosive particles which are then detonated, rapidly--and lethally--increasing the air pressure.
"You can use overpressure systems to kill those guys without destroying the infrastructure, and then go down and complete the clearance or search of those complexes," Melody said. "It's very effective in confined spaces where you don't have any worry about collateral damage to civilians."