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COLUMN ONE : Decade of Digging Aids Iraq : Hussein imported state-of-the-art bunker-building techniques. Now much of his military punch--and the leader himself--may be protected.

January 26, 1991|LEE DYE and MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A small French fishing net company was thrilled a decade ago to sell millions of dollars worth of its material to Iraq for use as military camouflage.

There was nothing wrong with the decision, company officials would lament later, because Iraq was then at war with the Western World's personification of evil, Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The same reasoning made it easy for a Belgian construction company, along with a government-controlled Yugoslav firm, to build hundreds of underground bunkers across Iraq.

And a British nonprofit company that had been established to teach people how to construct bomb shelters provided Iraq with detailed plans for large bunkers that today can house combat troops by the hundreds.

And thus did Saddam Hussein acquire the technical expertise, the plans and even some of the materials to build a network of bomb shelters and reinforced jet fighter hangers that apparently has protected his troops and air force, and even himself, from one of the most intense aerial assaults in history. U.S. officials concede that the concrete cocoons have allowed Hussein, at a critical time, to maintain control and command of his forces.

In interviews this week, engineers, contractors and material suppliers described for The Times how Hussein over the last decade has borrowed from the world's best technology to piece together his protective labyrinth--and they made clear that its destruction might be a vexing task.

As one engineer put it, the shelters "are not easily knocked out--because they are designed not to be knocked out."

The bunkers, they said, range from sophisticated underground command posts designed to protect sensitive electronics gear from repeated aerial attacks to hangars that are even stronger and more bomb-resistant than those built to protect NATO aircraft. At least some employ the same architectural designs that allow buildings to withstand severe earthquakes. They are further concealed by the desert camouflage netting that makes them blend into the background.

That all this was built with the assistance from countries now trying to destroy it is one of the war's early paradoxes. Western governments now trying to defeat Hussein did nothing to stop the assistance back in the 1980s because they preferred the Iraqi leader to his Iranian counterpart.

"At the time," said Joe Janssens, an executive with the Brussels-based firm Six Construct, which built some of the bunkers that now stretch across Iraq, "Hussein was a good fellow compared with the ayatollah, who had taken those American hostages."

"Iraq was fighting Iran," said Colin Croft, chairman of the Federation of Nuclear Shelter Consultants & Contractors in London, "and we had no idea this would be turned against us." Croft said his organization supplied Hussein with plans for combat bunkers in hopes that "some of our members would get work."

"That didn't happen," he said, but Hussein ended up with the bunkers anyway.

Various European companies helped Iraq build hundreds of bunkers, part of a nationwide defense construction program that began shortly after Hussein took power in 1979, and a year before he began his war with Iran. While bunkers and bomb shelters have proven effective in many modern wars, Hussein's fortifications are believed to be among the best ever built.

Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said Friday that the U.S. military has been gathering information from makers of Iraq's underground shelters.

"I think our folks have a pretty good sense of what the vulnerabilities are, where the targets should be hit," he said. "Judging from what I have seen, when they do in fact hit the targets in the right place, they have been very effective."

The experts who helped build the system, however, say it might not be that easy. In these heavily fortified bunkers--said to combine the amenities of home with computerized communications equipment--Hussein and his staff should be able to withstand virtually any attack by conventional weapons.

Some bunkers, sources said, protect the Scud missiles that Iraq has lobbed at Israel and Saudi Arabia. Others were designed to hold large numbers of combat troops. The Federation of Nuclear Shelter Consultants & Contractors in London designed 40 bunkers for Iraq that could each hold up to 1,200 troops.

"These (plans) were OKd and we didn't hear anything more until 1986, when we learned that a lot of equipment--pressure doors, ventilation units, blast valves, chemical toilets--were being sent from Switzerland," said the organization's Croft. "We are 95% sure that the units were completed in 1986.

"These units were designed to give protection against modern weapons," he added. "They can be built in a matter of days. A bulldozer digs the hole, takes the sand all out and the unit, like a prefab unit, is dropped in."

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