THE PERSIAN GULF OFF THE COAST OF IRAN
A dim red light flashed briefly in the pitch darkness as the afterdeck hatch was opened and closed. A man dressed head to toe in black looked up from where he waited at the rail of the patrol boat gently idling in the three-foot seas. A similarly clad figure beckoned, only his silhouette visible against the nearly featureless backdrop. The man at the rail glanced toward the lights along the coast five kilometers to the north, then turned away. He didn't want to lose his night vision too soon.
He examined his feelings, switching between anticipation of the job at hand, fear of failure, and a Muslim's resignation to fate. "In sha'Allah." God's will. He whispered the prayer for the future, though he wasn't sure he believed in it any longer.
Jamal el-Kassem made his way forward, his thickly soled combat boots affording him good footing on the wet decks. The boat was a Russian-built Pchela-class fast-attack patrol hydrofoil. At 83 feet on deck the heavily armed boat displaced 80 tons loaded, but with a crew of twelve men she could make 44 to 50 knots raised on her hydrofoils, pushed through the water, or rather over it, by two diesels pumping 6,000 horsepower into two shafts. She was an old boat, nearly twenty years since her keel was laid, and all the more rare because she was the only ship of any consequence left to what remained of Saddam Hussein's beleaguered forces.
This and two F/A-18 Jets was all they could count on, Kassem thought unhappily. Not much with which to win back a country illegally taken from them by the infidels. The memory of the last chaotic, horrible days in Baghdad before the Allied forces had entered the city and driven their Supreme leader into hiding in the desert was a blot on his conscience. If he had fought a little harder, held his post a little longer, used a little morecreativity and intelligence in his battlefield orders--if they all had tried harder--Iraq would not have been defeated in the second battle to liberate Kuwait.
The thoughts were almost more than he could bear, as were the memories of his wife and children. He had personally dug their bodies out of the rubble of their apartment building at the edge of the city. They had been murdered in an Allied air strike on the second day of the war, and there hadn't been a thing he could do about it. But that was about to change. Thanks to Saddam. In sha'Allah.
He began to chant the Shahada softly. "Allahu akbar; Allahu akbar; La ilaha illa 'llah." God is most great; God is most great; I testify that there is no other God but God and Muhammad is His Prophet.
Kassem was not an ignorant bedouin, nor was he a rabid anti-Western fundamentalist, though he felt that he had every right to be one; he'd been educated at Princeton, had lived among the infidels for four long years, learning international law and economics, and he'd hated every minute of his exile. He'd been an outsider. He'd even been called a nigger. His dark-complected face was deeply lined and weathered from spending years in desert combat training missions. He was large, by Iraqi standards, standing over six three, yet at forty-five he still moved like a desert scorpion, ready at long last, he thought with satisfaction, to lash out with his poisonous stinger. This time the strike would be aimed not only at their Western enemies, but also at Iran--a nation of men who should have been brothers, not enemies.
Two crewmen who were making the rubber raft ready looked up expectantly. "We are nearly finished here, Colonel," one of them said.
Kassem checked his watch. It was 1:30 A.M. Iran time. "Five minutes," he said, and was gratified to see their smiles. Good men, too good to continue to waste their lives uselessly. All that would end.
He took the ladder up to the bridge deck where his lieutenant, Karim al-Midafi waited. Where Kassem was large, and solidly built, Midafi was short and sinewy. His muscles stood out from the base of his neck like the deeply bedded roots of a willow that could withstand the most violent storm. Where Kassem looked like a rugby player, Midafi could have been a jockey. He was a night fighter, every bit as competent as his partner. They were friends.
"Are they ready down there?" he asked.
"I told them five minutes," Kassem said.
"The captain wants to see you."
Midafi glanced toward the lights on the distant shore, his dark eyes narrowing. He shrugged. "He wants us to understand the consequences if our mission fully develops this morning. The heathen is afraid for his own skin. He thinks that if we're caught and tortured we'll tell them how wegot ashore. Political troubles. He has to be careful now, because too much is at stake. It's money."
Kassem looked into his friend's eyes. "Will he continue to cooperate?"
"If he doesn't I'll kill him with my own two hands."
"We need him to send out the encrypted radio message. We're dead without it."
"He knows it!" Midafi said vehemently. "The bastards are taking advantage of us. When we've regained Baghdad, and our oil finally begins to flow again, I say we treat them the same as they've treated us. We hold them by the balls!"
"In the meantime we need them," Kassem repeated gently.
"More's the shame," Midafi lamented. "They're no different than the Americans."
"Get our equipment and load it aboard the raft. And make sure that we have everything, and that it has not been tampered with. I don't want to be stuck with weapons that are inoperative, or a transmitter that doesn't work."
"I've already checked our gear, but I'll check it again, Jamal." Midafi nodded toward the bridge hatch. "See what he wants. Then make him understand what will happen to him if he crosses us. I swear by Allah, if he does I will somehow come back and put my hands around his neck, even if it means crawling five hundred miles over the mountains and across the desert."
"I'll join you in a minute," Kassem said, and he opened the hatch and stepped over the raised sill into the bridge which was lit only by a very dim red light and the ghostly pale green raster of the radar set.
The captain stood at the windows, studying the shoreline through a pair of image-intensifying binoculars. The helmsman held the boat into the chop while the radio operator listened to something on his earphones. They wore the same uniform as the captain, which was different than Kassem's.
"You wanted to see me, Captain?" Kassem asked. "It's nearly time for us to leave."
Ukrainian Black Sea Fleet Captain Third Rank Vladislav Sidorenkov lowered his binoculars and turned his square-featured Slavic face to Kassem. "We're on station. I wanted to make sure that you were ready before I call for your air strike."
"Karim is checking our equipment. We leave in two minutes."
"Don't be hasty. Your government has very few assets to waste on a futile operation, or because of bad timing, or bad luck."
"Leave that part to us. Just do your job."
Sidorenkov's thick lips curled into a smirk. "Without us you wouldn't have gotten this far."
"It is just you and your bridge crew and chief engineer. We would have drawn the personnel from our own navy."
The Ukrainian laughed harshly. "From where? What navy?"
"Do not underestimate us."
Sidorenkov laid his binoculars down, and motioned to the radio operator, who slid the headphones half off his ears.
"The operation begins in two minutes. Get that off to Base One."
"Da," the operator replied tersely, and he turned back to his equipment.
Kassem studied the Ukrainian. He knew that it was possible that they would be betrayed. That there would be no boat to return to no matter how the operation went. This one had already been paid, and he would leave to save his own skin. Later he could claim that they'd detected an Iranian warship heading their way and had to run, and he would be believed. That was the part that hurt the most: The Ukrainian would be believed by enough of those in the Revolutionary Command Council that Saddam could be convinced.
"Be here when we're finished," Kassem said uselessly.
"We'll wait until the agreed-upon time. No longer. Afterward we'll get out of here. We're brave, but not fools, Colonel."
"Is that the message they give you in Kiev? Stand up to Moscow but not the Iranian navy?"
"There is a very large difference between defending one's homeland and that of another man," Sidorenkov said with an indulgent smile.
"Yes there is. I suggest you do not forget it."
"I'm here by orders to help a former ally in a last-ditch stand to save itself. But I will not stick my neck out very far. Nor do I have orders to do so. Baghdad is no longer yours. None of your cities are. Nor are your oil fields, or your airstrips, or your eighty kilometers of coast line. Saddam Hussein only has his deserts, this ship, two jets, and little else. You have nothing to defend. I will not forget that."
"There is honor and loyalty."
Sidorenkov started to laugh again but then thought better of it. "I'll give you that much, Colonel. But this is not my fight, it is yours. Get on with it, and I'll stay as long as I think it is practical for me to do so."
"See that you do."
The hatch opened and Midafi was there in the darkness. "We're ready."
"Wish us luck, Captain," Kassem said gravely.
"Even if you are successful tonight, what will it accomplish?" Sidorenkov asked not unkindly.
"We're seeking information, nothing more," Kassem replied at the hatch. "With knowledge there is power."
"With armies and navies and air forces there is power. With money--"
"With oil," Kassem interrupted. "And we have the oil."
Sidorenkov was about to say something when his radio operator pushed the earphones off his ears. "Base One acknowledges. The mission clock is go."
Kassem left the bridge without another word, and climbed down to the gently rolling afterdeck with Midafi. The Iraqi crewmen were lowering thefourteen-foot black rubber inflatable over the lee side of the boat where the water was calm. The mission equipment was lashed to the floor of the raft in floatable watertight backpacks. Midafi handed Kassem an American-made M-16 assault rifle, and four extra thirty-round magazines of .223-inch body-armor-piercing ammunition.
"If we need all this we'll be in trouble," Kassem said, pocketing the magazines.
Midafi grinned viciously. "In that case we'll take as many of the bastards with us as we can."
His wife and children were safe in the deserts to the far west of the capital city, but he felt the pain of Kassem's loss as if it had been his own family in the rubble. He'd been like an uncle to Kassem's two daughters. But now that their training was finished and it was time to fight, he was more than ready, he was anxious.
As Kassem boarded the inflatable he looked up toward the bridge deck. Sidorenkov came out and stood by the rail. When Midafi had the highly muffled 3-hp outboard motor running and they were heading away from the patrol boat, Kassem looked back again. This time Sidorenkov waved once and went inside, the brief flash of red light all that was visible of the boat which was rapidly swallowed by the blackness of the sea and the jumble of lights on the offshore oil rigs several kilometers to their southeast.
They made it to the stony beach in slightly over fifteen minutes, where in silence they carried the inflatable a dozen meters up into the tall sea grasses and brush above the high-tide line and crouched out of sight of any chance patrol that might be passing. Midafi stood watch while Kassem checked their exact position with a handheld GPS (global positioning system) navigator.
They were within ten meters of their planned landing spot, which placed the Iranian navy base of Bandar-é Emn Khomeini three and a half kilometers up the beach to the east.
Kassem took a pair of binoculars from one of the packs and rose up high enough out of the grass that he could make a complete 360-degree sweep of their position. The lights were confusing at first, making it hard to distinguish between the navy base, the town of Bandar Ma'shur, which had been renamed Bandar-é Emn, and the dozens of oil platforms dotted just offshore. But after several moments he could pick out the lights along the base's perimeter fence as well as those around a low, heavily barricaded installation a few hundred meters from the coastal highway. It was where electricity for the navy base was generated. The feeder lines, like most of the station, were underground to protect them from missile attacks. But the station did have one exploitable weakness. The ventilator intakes that supplied outside air to the diesel generators had to be out in the open, hidden only by camouflage paint and netting. Finding their exact location had taken nearly five months and had cost the lives of three very goodmen, all of them Kassem's friends. But without that information tonight's mission wouldn't have had one chance in a thousand of success.
Midafi unlashed the equipment and he and Kassem strapped on the heavy packs. Keeping low, and with M-16s at the ready, they raced up from the beach grasses, across the open ground studded with scrub brush and other beach and desert flora, toward the east.
They stopped twice so that Kassem could study the power station through his binoculars. Fifty meters away he could finally pick out the four air shafts clearly enough to make a positive identification. Their locations and configurations were exactly as he had studied from the photographs and diagrams they'd been supplied. He checked the luminous dial of his watch.
"We're still on schedule."
"Good." At home Midafi was garrulous, but in the field he was a man of very few words.
Crouching on the hardpan, they unslung their packs. Midafi's contained four lightweight tripods that stood less than a meter tall and were painted flat black for low visibility. Each was equipped with an operator-set firing pack that would spit out an electronic spike after a delay of 0 to 600 seconds. He set the tripods up two meters apart in a straight row.
Kassem's pack contained four specially modified American-made M72 A2 antitank rockets. He took them out, one at a time, extended their cardboard tubes, and handed them to Midafi, who set them on the tripods. Working swiftly, but carefully and methodically, Midafi aimed the rockets at the four ventilator shaft heads which were disguised to look like small fishing shacks, attached the firing harnesses, and set the firing delay for 300 seconds.
"This'll give the bastards something to think about," he said.
"If the jets are on time," Kassem replied softly. "In sha'Allah."
He checked his M-16 to make sure it was ready to fire, then headed parallel to a dirt road that connected the power station with the service and supply gate into the base, Midafi falling in beside him in a deceptively slow but distance-eating gait.
They were at their most vulnerable now. A chance patrol might discover them. Motion sensors could have been installed since the last time one of their operatives had been here. Or, and this was the most chilling possibility in Kassem's mind, the Iranians might have planted land mines. It was not uncommon. Iran and Iraq were the most heavily land-mined countries on earth. So many were planted, in fact, that no one had any idea where they all were. One wrong step and there would be a sudden blinding flash, a brief instant of intense pain, and then, for the lucky ones, oblivion.
Within minutes they reached, unharmed, a position twenty meters below and to the west of the service gate, where they crouched in a ditch. Kassem trained his binoculars on the guard shack. He picked out one man inside and two standing together in the middle of the road on the opposite side of the barrier. A fourth guard came from behind the building, joining thetwo on the road. They were armed with Russian-designed AK-47 assault rifles, and were dressed in night-operations camos.
Midafi touched his arm. "Now," he whispered.
Kassem heard nothing but the sounds of small waves on the beach below, machinery running somewhere on the base, and perhaps a truck rumbling somewhere in the distance. But then the distinctive roar of two F/A-18 Hornets came in very low from the north, shattering the relative quiet of the night so completely and suddenly that any rational thought was out of the question.
The first missile strike took out the guardhouse and gate, and moments later the four LAW rockets across the no-man's land behind them hit the power station's ventilator shafts.
Kassem and Midafi turned their black tunics and trousers inside out, revealing the Iranian Palace Guards' dark camo pattern, then rushed up the hill to the shattered gate and furiously burning guardhouse.
One of the Iranian soldiers was still alive, in shock but on his feet. He turned around in surprise as Kassem appeared out of the darkness. For a moment it was obvious that he thought help had arrived, but then his eyes widened as Kassem raised his rifle and fired three rounds into his chest, blowing him off his feet.
The big diesels in the power-generating station, deprived of air because the ventilator shafts were now blocked, shut down, plunging most of the base into darkness. Only a few emergency lights were on anywhere, and those were overpowered by the blossoms of fire springing up on two of the nearby oil platforms, which the jet fighters were attacking.
The base was coming alive like a suddenly disturbed anthill, but no one noticed two Palace Guard officers racing on foot down the hill toward the heavily fortified administration building at the head of the deeply dredged inner harbor.
They had trained for eleven weeks, every conceivable obstacle placed in their path, and so far their training was paying off. But it was too soon for self-congratulations, Kassem cautioned himself. They still had to find what they'd come for, and then get out with it. Impossible odds. But there were no other choices.
The night before they'd left camp, they'd been brought into the emergency bunker of the RCC where Saddam Hussein waited for them."Go with the blessings of Allah, and of me," he said. "For our glorious cause!"
Troop transports, jeeps, and armored personnel carriers, along with hundreds of soldiers on foot, some of them only half dressed, were starting to clog the roads. Although some of the activity was moving toward the apparent source of the attack, many of the soldiers were rushing about in all directions. There didn't seem to be any organization yet. The confusion would not last, but in the meantime it was exactly what they'd hoped for.
Kassem pulled up short in the shadows across from the windowless, two-story building that looked as if it were deserted.
Double chain-link fences topped with rolls of razor wire, through which there was only one entrance, encircled the building. Gun emplacements were mounted on the four corners of the roof, which also bristled with communications antennae, radar domes, and satellite dishes. An emergency generator was up and running, supplying power to the poured concrete building, and to powerful spotlights that bathed every square meter of the fence. But there was no movement anywhere.
Midafi studied the entry gate and guardhouse through binoculars. "There's at least one of them hiding in there like a rabbit. Maybe two."
Kassem looked at his watch. "Any second now--"
He was interrupted by a bright flash and explosion at the telephone exchange in the direction from which they'd come. Then one of the F/A-18s roared low overhead, the noise deafening.
"Now," Kassem shouted. He and Midafi raced across the open ground and along the fence to the main entry.
Two Palace Guards, their AK-47s unslung, nervously watched from the door of the gatehouse.
"Open up! We're under attack!" Kassem shouted.
"What's going on?" one of the guards demanded. "The phone lines are down, we can't reach anyone."
"That's why we're here!"
Another rocket landed somewhere along the base perimeter fence, and the second F/A-18 screamed overhead.
"Move it, you godless dogs!"
The thoroughly confused guard motioned for the other one to release the gate lock, and both gates swung inward.
"Who's attacking, for God's sake?" the first guard demanded.
"Get inside, you fool," Kassem ordered, roughly herding the man back into the guard post. Then he shot both men at point-blank range, their bodies crashing to the floor, blood splashing behind them on the walls.
Midafi had the gates closed and relocked and was waving off a jeepload of soldiers when Kassem emerged. They could hear more explosions offshore as the jets directed the attack back to the oil rigs. The night sky was eerily lit by fires.
Inside the administration blockhouse the main corridor was deserted. They reached the broad stairs at the far end and took them two levels down to a pair of steel doors that led even deeper into the bowels of the building.
A lone guard stepped out of the shadows and raised his rifle, but before he could issue a challenge, Kassem shot him in the chest with a short burst, the force of the three rounds driving the man's body up against the wall.
Midafi entered the five-digit lock code their operatives had gotten for them.
Something was wrong. Kassem could feel it in his gut. "The guards," he said, looking back the way they'd just come.
The lock cycled open. "What about them?" Midafi asked.
"There should be more security here."
"The attack drew them away."
"It's not right--"
"We can't turn back, Jamal! Not this close!"
One piece of information is all we need, my brothers. But you must bring us proof. A serial number, a photograph ... something. It is of vital importance. Worth your lives. Worth a thousand lives.
Midafi pulled open the doors, stepped through, then stopped short, his breath catching in his throat as he stared in open-mouthed awe at what lay thirty meters below.
Four huge submarines, each nearly the length of a soccer field, floated low in the water, their decks nearly awash, the top of their sails, from which the periscopes and electronic masts rose, painted with fleet numbers and the green, white, and red flag of Iran. The warships looked like malevolent sea creatures, dark and ungodly, water glistening off the cluster-guard anechoic tiles that covered their hulls like armor-plated fish scales. Heathen inventions. Satan's tools.
Kassem stepped through the doorway and stood next to Midafi on the catwalk. He too was moved to silence. He had studied the scale drawings and diagrams, had seen the photographs and read the specifications, and he had been briefed by the engineers at the training camp. But he was not completely prepared for the deadly bulk of the four great machines lying in the water below.
Bandar-é Emn Khomeini Navy Base was Iran's most closely guarded nonsecret. Two years ago Tehran had purchased the last of four Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines from Moscow, and had completed construction of the hardened submarine pens to house them out of harm's way. Massive high-carbon steel doors protected the openings through which the subs would pass out into the Gulf. Electronic surveillance and alarm devices covered every square meter of the pens, and Iran's elite Palace Guards patrolled the base with orders to shoot to kill without hesitation. Because of the extraordinary precautions, every intelligence agency in the world knew what was here, or thought they did.
Kassem felt a sudden, deep sense of despair, and defeat. If these ships were allowed to become fully operational, Iraq would never have a chance of survival. They would be caught between their infidel enemies to the west and a more dangerous enemy here on their doorstep.
The forward loading hatch on the submarine directly below them was open, and a torpedo or missile held in a hoist was poised to be lowered. Whether or not it was a nuclear weapon was impossible to tell at this distance. But it was what they had been sent to find out.
Iran had the submarines. But if Tehran also had managed to buy nuclear weapons from their Russian allies, the threat would be infinitely greater.It was information that Iraq would leak to the West, if they could come up with the proof.
Three technicians in white coveralls spewed out from an open hatch in the sail and looked up toward the catwalk where Kassem and Midafi stood in the relative darkness. They were armed with automatic weapons.
"It's a trap!" Midafi shouted at the same moment powerful floodlights lit the sub pens as bright as day and a Klaxon began to blare.
Kassem fell back through the doorway as the technicians opened fire, catching Midafi with at least a half-dozen rounds to the gut and head. He was dead before he hit the deck.
It was a missile they'd been loading aboard the submarine. Kassem fixed on that thought. A nuclear missile. He was certain of it. Otherwise why the trap?
But Karim was dead! There was no helping that. And, Kassem realized with a sick feeling, the radio transmitter was in Midafi's pack.
He turned and sprinted back up the stairs to the main corridor as four Palace Guards stormed through the front doors.
"The infidels have reached the submarine pens!" Kassem shouted in formal Farsi. "Thou must block their retreat!"
"How many art there, sir?" the lead soldier asked. He was confused. His orders were to spring a trap on a force of infiltrators, but no one had told him that one of his own officers would be down here issuing orders.
Other alarms were coming to life throughout the compound. More soldiers streamed through the front entrance.
"At least ten, possibly more. No matter what, thou must hold them until I return with help!"
"Yes, sir," the Palace Guard replied, and he led his troops toward the stairs.
Outside, Kassem commandeered a passing jeep and ordered the driver to take him immediately to the Base Security Command Post. A half-block later he shot the man, dumped his body in the shadows, and headed toward the front gate.
Escape by sea was out of the question without the transmitter to call the patrol boat. Nor could he message his own people about what he'd seen. Which meant he had to make it home at all costs.
For Karim's sake. In sha'Allah. For Saddam Hussein's return to his rightful place in Baghdad.