A warm, moist evening wind blew across Basra from the Sheat
El Arav, a stream shared by the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. The unmistakable odors of the oil wells of nearby Lubir and Romila wafted through the air, hinting at sources of unimaginable wealth.
In the city of Basra, a tall, thin figure quickly crossed the Butchers Market. The man, dressed in the latest French fashion and carrying a black leather briefcase, was in an obvious hurry. His brown eyes broadcast his impatience. The smell of sheep carcasses hanging upside down from metal hooks in the butcher stalls, always repelled him. He wrinkled his face in disgust, trying without success to block out the sharp, sour odors of meat and hides from his nostrils. He lives like a hunted animal, and we have to pay the price, he thought wearily.
From the Butchers Market, he turned left toward General
Bachr Tzidki Square. He heaved a sigh of relief. In comparison to the market, this empty, odorless square was paradise on earth.
Basra, one of Iraqs four major cities, is considered a modern, developed port, but some of its inner neighborhoods have been left behind in past centuries. So revolting are they that American intelligence and even their bombs avoided these neighborhoods during the Gulf War. While Basras industrial zones were subjected to massive bombings day after day,
these primitive areas were untouched. As a result, some of the greatest fortresses of the enemy remained intact, right beneath the noses of the Americans!
Forty years earlier, beautiful gardens had flourished in this
square. Now the gardens had withered and turned into fields of thorns, lairs for unsavory creatures. Each stone covered an angry snake or a deadly scorpion. An ideal place to hide, at least in the eyes of Saddam Hussein.
As the man pressed forward, the fields of thorns gave way to a
derelict neighborhood, straight from the previous century, a crowded heap of half-ruined houses, in which apparently no one had lived for years. Dark arches and crooked alleys led to unknown destinations. In some alleys, however, the darkness was incomplete. Long candles, set in glass boxes, cast a ghostly glow down the dark alleys. This was the first hint that the place was not entirely deserted. The man turned down one of these faintly illuminated alleys, where he approached the second hint that this neighborhood was populated.
At the end of the alley there sat an old run-down coffee house that no health department would have licensed. The coffee house, which bore the surprising name Haifa, was lit with the harsh yellow light of two
old, naked electric bulbs.
The man knocked sharply twice and waited for the eyes on the
other side of the heavy iron door to examine him through the peephole. A faint murmur of consent was heard, and the door opened.
Not surprisingly, the coffee house was almost empty. Who would want to sip a cup of coffee or tea in this filthy, reeking den? The only people present were two men playing backgammon at a plain wood table. One of them raised his head and surveyed the man through red eyes. You came just in time, Pierre. I was worried about you, he said with relief, rubbing the bristles on his chin. He looked admiringly at the guest. You look elegant today. Jacket pressed, hair slicked back. What happened?
I always look this way, Majhid, in case you have forgotten, said Pierre with a slight smile.
Always? Majhid burst out in raucous laughter. Its true, I drink a lot of alcohol, but my head still works well. You usually show up in a rag that you found in the flea market of Bahrein. He burst into laughter again.
Let me pass, Majhid, said Pierre, smoothing his lapels. His eyes rested for a second on a bottle of date-alcohol arak that seemed to beckon him from the table. Dont even think about it, Pierre, warned Majhid. If you are even two minutes late, you will have to look for your head tomorrow.
I know, said Pierre quietly. He made a mock bow before the backgammon players. Farewell to you, devoted guards. He
smoothed his lapels again and with measured steps, strode behind the counter, stepping over two or three empty bottles rolling on the floor, and entered the back room. He crossed to the far end of the room and pulled a dark, heavy curtain to the left, revealing the entrance to a sleek, modern elevator. As always, it awaited him patiently. Confidently, he stepped into the elevator, pressed the single button, and began his descent, ten stories beneath the ground, to the palace of Saddam Hussein.
* * *
The word palace does not accurately describe any of
the underground fortresses that Saddam Hussein had built throughout Iraq. The palace in the ancient quarter of Basra was protected, like all his other palaces, from any kind of sudden attack -- including atomic, biological, and chemical. However, Saddam had constructed this particular palace as the ultimate bastion of refuge. The external walls, four yards thick, consisted of layers of poured concrete separated alternately by sheets of steel and titanium in steel frames. The bottom of the building rested on a shock-absorbent pneumatic platform. Digital sensors transmitted every movement from a radius of dozens of yards to the computers in the control room, which were manned around the clock. Closed-circuit televisions left not an inch of territory unsupervised. The entire building needed no support from the outside. An air-purification system supplied clean air, and an independent generator provided electricity. Enough food was stored to withstand a hundred-year siege, not to mention the rows of closets filled with clothing.
The meeting took place in one of the dozens of small halls scattered throughout the palace. It was not the same hall in which they had met last month, of course. The Iraqi ruler, who took every conceivable security precaution, would never hold two meetings in the same place. The video cameras jutting out of every corner further testified to the tyrants obsession with
Nine men were present at that secret meeting. At the head of the
table sat President Saddam Hussein -- or one of his million doubles, thought Pierre, somewhat amused. Beside the president sat his two sons, Udai and Kusai, who had begun to function in top government positions. Iraqs
number two man, Assistant Chairman of the Revolution Izat Ibrahim was present, as was Assistant Prime Minister Tariq Aziz. Special French adviser Pierre de Balmond sat next to his colleague, adviser Gilbert Linius, who had arrived from France only two days earlier. The last two high-ranking bemedaled officers attending this meeting were not introduced.
Each of the eight men seated around the table with Saddam
Hussein had passed a strict security check. Every detail about their lives was known. They were under the surveillance of the secret police twenty-four hours a day. But Saddam Hussein did not rely on just these security measures. To maintain his security and to satisfy his paranoia, from time to time, he would execute even those closest to him.
The situation is tough, began Saddam Hussein. The economic sanctions are causing famine in Iraq. In the West, they say that the famine does not concern me. They call me the butcher of Baghdad. With a wave of his hand, the president of the United States
kills thousands of innocent Iraqi citizens, including children, but they call me the butcher of Baghdad!
They have never understood me in the West. They will never figure out what motivates me and what my next step will be. They think I am a madman who seeks to rule the entire world, a cruel despot who craves genocide.
His voice became somewhat kind. What do they understand? Let them say that I have an unstable personality. But in truth, I am deeply worried about the famine. I am worried about Americas determination to destroy me. The American president is demonstrating his determination. My enemies grow stupider from day to day, but their bombs grow smarter -- and these pose a threat to us.
Tense silence filled the room. Gilberts hand, on its way
toward a pitcher of juice standing on the table, froze, then began a slow retreat.
Saddams expression was severe. There must be a way. We cannot continue to be sitting ducks waiting for American bombs to hit us.
He looked around the table, studying the face of each man to see what impression his words had made. The two decorated officers blinked in fear. Gilbert, you wanted to drink, said the despot quietly, addressing the French adviser. Why dont you drink?
Gilberts hand returned reluctantly to the pitcher. He
poured the orange juice and drank it with careful movements, as if forced to do so. Then he peered fearfully at Saddam. The tyrant nodded. Permission had been granted.
Gilbert rose to his feet. With the permission of His Gracious Majesty, the Honorable President, Chairman of the Revolutionary Committee, the Head of State and its esteemed pilot --
Cut it short, Saddam interrupted with a mocking smile, you dont sound convincing.
Gilbert turned red as a ripe tomato. He cleared his throat, was silent for a minute, and then tried again. A year and a half ago, we were asked by the honorable President Saddam --
Now you sound natural, proclaimed the tyrant. Without all the embellishments. Continue.
The president requested a revolutionary plan that would reverse the situation and release Iraq from the noose of the hypocritical Western world, continued Gilbert hesitantly. For the past year and a half, my colleague Pierre de Balmond and I have worked to devise such a plan. If it succeeds, we will laugh at America. The next war will be a farce. No smart missile will rise in the air -- but if one does, it will explode in the face of its dispatchers!
Speak, said Hussein tersely. The aggression visible
on his face chilled the blood of the men around the table. They knew that if Saddam did not like what the French adviser said, he would not hesitate to order his execution.
Gilbert spoke. Saddam interrupted him a
few times. He asked, probed, sought clarification. Sometimes Pierre filled in information and supplied explanations.
At first, the idea sounded too bold, too farfetched. But as the plan unfolded and the picture became clear, a broad smile spread over Saddams round cheeks. At long last, someone with brains in his head! he said happily. An excellent plan, though it is an enormous undertaking. We must prepare logistically for a mammoth operation that will cross continents and oceans. We will have to budget billions of dollars for the purpose. But that is no problem. I have no limitations. I will place all the money and means you require at your disposal. The main thing is to get started immediately.
Pierre asked to speak. We will need to organize task forces.
How many? asked Tariq Aziz, opening his mouth for
the first time.
Pierre ticked them off on his fingers. One large one in California, one in Israel, one in London, one in Copenhagen, one in Syria, and of course a large one here in Iraq.
Saddam followed with interest. How much time will it take for the plan to be implemented?
The adviser thought for a minute. About two years.
Two years? Udai Hussein protested. In two years, the Americans may elect a new president who will bomb us without warning us first!
About two years, Pierre repeated firmly. It cant be done overnight. We must first lay a broad foundation. It will take many people. The plan has many facets that must all come together, and I assure you that two years is a modest estimate.
The men had been speaking quietly, almost in a whisper, out of fear of the tyrant. But when Saddam spoke, his voice thundered through the room. The exact timetable is unimportant. What I want is a perfect plan without loopholes, with no room for failure. My enemies must not know where the blows are coming from until I am ready to tell them.
Yes, said Pierre. Mighty America will tremble like a leaf in the wind. Its very success will cause its downfall.
Saddams eyes flashed. Not only America. The whole world will bow to its knees before me. All the Arab countries will acknowledge my superiority!
No, this is not one of Saddams doubles, Pierre
thought. Only Saddam Hussein speaks like that. And he is not truly worried about the famine, as he said, but he is enraged over the lack of
acknowledgment of his superiority.
The French advisers left the palace separately, emerging, with
relief, into the normal world above ground. Their shirts were drenched with sweat, and when they returned to their hotel rooms, they hurried for the shower. But they knew clearly that they had just been guaranteed two years of life. The lives of the French advisers were now of paramount importance to Saddam Hussein.