The Collapse of Saddam’s Secret Subway

Before Operation Iraqi Freedom, one of the most compelling symbols of the depravity and danger of Saddam Hussein was the uncompleted Baghdad Metro.

Saddam was believed to have launched the multi-billion-dollar subway project in 1983 to alleviate traffic congestion in Baghdad’s streets. But Iraq’s war with Iran apparently shifted Saddam’s priorities. At some point in the mid-80s, he fired his crew of international contractors and shelved the subway project, which was to have been ready for testing in 1986.

Soon, Saddam was using the abandoned network of tunnels for weapons storage as well as for hardened hideouts for himself and his military.

At least that was the picture painted by the Bush administration prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. In making the case for war, the White House frequently cited the tunnels beneath Baghdad as likely storehouses for weapons of mass destruction.

At a December 2002 press conference, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld spoke of the “enormous miles and miles and miles of underground tunneling” that prevented the United Nations from properly inspecting Saddam’s WMD stocks.

"I don’t know how inspectors on the surface of the Earth can even know what’s going on in the underground facilities that the Iraqis have," stated Rumsfeld.

Iraq’s "extensive system of underground tunnels and bunkers” was even cited by Secretary of State Colin Powell in his pivotal address to the UN in early February 2003. According to Powell, Iraq was likely using the tunnels to conceal mobile biological weapons factories.

“They can produce enough dry biological agent in a single month to kill thousands upon thousands of people,” Powell asserted.

Later that month, CBS’s 60 Minutes program aired "Saddam’s Deadly Subway Scheming," an exclusive interview with an Iraqi defector in London named Dr. Hussein Shahristani, who had served as head of the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission before escaping in 1991.

In the interview, Shahristani said he had (secondhand) knowledge that nearly 60 miles of subway tunnels existed and had been diverted by Saddam for weapons storage. (In May 2004, the U.S. State Department leaked Shahristani’s name as a leading candidate for Iraq’s Prime Minister position. But Shahristani turned down the job, paving the way for the U.S. government’s selection of former CIA operative Iyad Allawi.)

With the April 2003 fall of Baghdad, U.S. weapons inspectors finally had their chance to scour Iraq’s subterranean landscape at greater liberty. But President Bush counseled that patience was required while experts searched Iraq’s "tunnels, caves, all kinds of complexes" for the illicit weapons international inspectors had been unable to turn up.

"We’ll find them and it will be a matter of time to do so,” promised Bush at a May 2003 press conference.

U.S. inspectors certainly knew where to begin looking. A California company, Parsons Corporation, had created the original design for the Baghdad Metro in the 1980s. During the 1991 Gulf War, U.S. officials reportedly seized from Parsons the blueprints of the proposed rapid-transit system.

According to one map of the proposed project, Parsons’ design called for two underground lines. One would connect the urban center with Saddam City (Al Thawra), Baghdad’s poorest district and home to 2 million of its 5 million residents. The other subway branch would link the eastern district of Masbah and the western district of Aadhamiya.

But last month, when the CIA’s Iraqi Survey Group issued its Comprehensive Report on WMD in Iraq, it became clear that Saddam’s use of the tunnels for stashing WMD was, as one joker put it, just a turban myth.

Nowhere in chief U.S. weapons inspector Charles Duelfer’s 1,000-page report is the Baghdad Metro mentioned. Nor does the word “subway” ever appear in the document.

The word “tunnel” shows up twice, describing an (aboveground) railway tunnel near Al Mansuriyah that contained some chemical-weapon warheads in 1991 that, according to the report, were destroyed by Iraq later that year to comply with UN Security Council Resolution 687.

The ISG report completely dismisses Powell’s (and others’) claim that Saddam was concealing mobile germ factories before the war.

“In spite of exhaustive investigation,” states the report, “ISG found no evidence that Iraq possessed, or was developing BW [biological weapon] agent production systems mounted on road vehicles or railway wagons.”

Some intelligence sources have asserted that the Baghdad Metro wasn’t the only structure used for underground storage of WMD. In early 2003, one of Saddam’s former bodyguards luridly described bunkers buried in the desert that housed an array of chemical and biological agents.

The ISG report discusses several underground bunkers, all of which are dozens of miles from Baghdad. Only one, Al Muthanna, was found to have ever contained WMD, and those chemical weapons had been “partially declared” to UN inspectors in 1991. During Operation Desert Storm, U.S. bombing heavily damaged the German-built facility, and Iraq razed most of the Al Muthanna complex by early 2000, according to the ISG report.

The Bush administration’s miscalculations about the role of underground facilities and Saddam’s WMD stem in part from heavy reliance on Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi. In late 2001, Chalabi produced defectors who reported that Saddam had a network of underground tunnels that hid crates of documents about WMD, if not the weapons themselves.

Yet experts warned Bush of the unreliability of Chalabi’s information. In a January 2002 op-ed originally published in the Christian Science Monitor, Scott Ritter, former chief of the Concealment Investigations Unit for the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq, said “the UN stopped using Chalabi’s information as a basis for conducting inspections once the tenuous nature of his sources and his dubious motivations became clear.”

Unfortunately, added Ritter, the mainstream U.S. media continued to use Chalabi as a source for stories about hidden tunnels, without any firsthand reporting.

“This media coverage serves policy figures gunning for a wider war. It generates a frenzy of speculation concerning Iraq in the public arena, which accepts at face value this information despite the fact that almost none of what Chalabi has purveyed to the media about Iraq has turned out to be accurate,” wrote Ritter.

Some observers asserted that it was logical to assume that Saddam would hide his WMD underground. In a piece published in Technology Review just days before the U.S. began its “shock and awe” air campaign, a physics professor at the University of California at Berkeley noted that Libya and North Korea made use of tunnels to frustrate U.S. military reconnaissance efforts.

“A complex subway under Baghdad is just what Saddam needs for illegal weapons storage, and, if necessary, for his personal escape,” observed Prof. Richard A. Muller. “He could afford to build such a complex. And if he didn’t build this subway, the question becomes, why not?”

Yet British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who went on to become a major booster of the U.S.-led war, apparently did not share the belief that Saddam’s WMD were hidden underground. Blair’s 2002 report to Parliament on Iraq contained no mention of tunnels, subways, or bunkers.

To be sure, Iraq is rife with underground structures. After the fall of Baghdad in 2003, coalition soldiers reportedly searched “more than two dozen underground bunkers and tunnels” hoping to find Saddam and his sons. All were empty, save for food wrappers and water bottles, according to USA Today.

The U.S. military also reported finding some tunnels beneath the Baghdad airport. No information was provided by the Pentagon about what, if anything, was in the tunnels, aside from cigarette butts and used tea bags.  A “web of tunnels” was also reportedly discovered under the CPA headquarters in November 2003, but it contained only documents, not WMD.

The Duelfer report might appear to finally put to rest assertions that Iraq was hiding WMD underground prior to the war. Yet the myth of Saddam’s subway scheming refuses to die. Earlier this year, according to Fox News (scroll down), a Dutch newspaper reported that Iraq’s WMD are currently hidden in tunnels throughout Syria. According to the paper, De Telegraaf, Saddam’s Republican Guard and members of the Syrian presidential family worked together to organize the weapons transfer before the war in Iraq began.

Meanwhile, plans to build an underground mass-transit system in Baghdad are once again moving ahead. An official with Iraq’s Ministry of Transport confirmed that the Baghdad Metro is slated for a redesign. In an e-mail, Zouba Yass Khadayer, director general of the State Company for Implementation of Transport and Communications Projects, said SCITAC is holding "many discussion with many companies" about updating the old subway design based on new technology.