A senior government official said Thursday Saddam Hussein has a major military communications center below the al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad but it will not be targeted for allied bombing because of the civilian occupants.
"Yes, we've known about that from the very beginning," said the official, who asked not to be identified.The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times reported Thursday of the existence of the Iraqi military communications center, where many journalists and other foreigners are housed.
"It may be the principle command position in Baghdad now" as a result of U.S. bombing earlier in the week of another site, the official said. Allied military and White House officials contended that facility was a major communications center, but the Iraqis claimed it was a civilian bomb shelter.
Despite the significance of the hotel command and control center, the government official said it need not be taken out by allied bombing. "We don't target civilians. We would not have hit the other target (the Baghdad bunker) if we had known there were civilians," he said.
"There's more than one way to skin a cat," the source said. "If you can cut the way they communicate out of that location, you don't have to take out the location. You go for alternate command-and-control centers that act as relay sites."
The center, unidentified military officials told the Times, sends out the last secure transmission lines over two bridges spanning the Tigris River to Iraqi forces in Kuwait, allowing Saddam to send messages to his military commanders in Kuwait.
Breaking the communications link, either by destroying the hotel base or by severing the six strands of fiber optic cable under the bridges, would force the Iraqis to communicate with high-frequency radio signals that could be easily intercepted, sources told the newspaper.
Senior U.S. military officials told the Times the al-Rashid Hotel contains a secret two-floor basement bunker that includes rooms connected with coaxial cable, microwave communications equipment and military and civilian telephones networks.
On Wednesday, two American bombs were dropped on a reinforced building and Iraq reported hundreds of civilians were killed. American officials said they believed the structure had been converted from a bomb shelter into a bunker used for military purposes.
On Thursday, far fewer than "hundreds" of victims had been pulled from the scene, possibly giving credence to U.S. officials' statements that there was no indication prior to bombing that civilians were in the building.
"It is far easier to pick up a crowd of 1,000 than 100," a Pentagon official said. "Our capability can be very good, but sometimes it is uneven."