Jan. 8, 2003 -- When allied forces fired three cruise missiles at a conference center in Baghdad on the first night of the Gulf War in 1991, their real target was underneath it: a state-of-the-art command bunker belonging to Saddam Hussein.
The missiles slammed into the conference center and it was blown to smithereens. But the newly built bunker, protected by shock absorbers and a 16-foot-thick shell of reinforced concrete, survived intact, according to a former Yugoslav engineer who helped build it.
See one of the engineer's diagrams.
"It was completely functioning. All the installations and equipment survived. It only shook from side to side when the three cruise missiles hit," the engineer said in a recent interview in Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital. He requested anonymity because of concern for his own security.
And what happens if U.S. forces and their allies launch a second war against Iraq? The engineer says the so-called "bunker-buster" may just do the trick in destroying Saddam's underground lair.
Surviving a Direct Hit
Saddam's bunker is modeled on one built for Marshal Tito, the late Yugoslav dictator, under a mountain in southern Bosnia, which was part of the former Yugoslavia. Tito's bunker is now maintained by the Bosnian Army.
When Saddam visited Yugoslavia in 1976 — he was Iraq's vice president at the time — Tito bragged to him about his luxuriously appointed bunker, which was built to house 500 people and survive a nuclear attack.
Saddam became president in 1979, and during the 1980s Tito sent the same engineers who built his bunker to build a smaller version for the Iraqi leader near the Republican Palace and the 14 July Bridge in central Baghdad. The engineer who spoke to ABCNEWS was a lead member of the design and construction teams on both projects.
"They both have the same degree of protection," he said. "They could survive a direct hit from 2,000 kilograms of TNT or a nuclear bomb from two kilometers away."
Protected by 16 Feet of Concrete
Tito's bunker has the natural protection of between 60 meters and 250 meters (200 feet and 800 feet) of Bosnian mountain granite above its chambers, but in the sandy plain on which Baghdad stands, the only option was to build a protective shell of reinforced concrete, according to the engineer.
Because of Iraqi security concerns, the Yugoslavs started by building a 16-foot-thick concrete roof. "We built the roof and raised it, and then under the shadow of that roof, all the contents inside were built," he said. "When you took an aerial picture, all you saw was 50 by 90 meters of concrete roof."
Raising a roof the size of a football field was such a feat that Saddam himself came to see it, the engineer said. "Because the roof itself weighed 4½ thousand tons, raising it was a miracle of civil engineering. The minute it was done, all the workers had to move out so he could come with his officers. He greeted us. He was happy. It was successful. He couldn't believe it himself that we could lift the roof up that way."
After building the conference center on top of the roof to disguise the true nature of the site, the team turned their attention to the bunker itself. The extensive complex is surrounded on all six sides by the concrete shell, and gets additional protection from a layer of elastic shock absorbers designed to deaden any impact, whether from an earthquake or an air strike.
The entire structure is anchored by a latticework of horizontal and vertical steel and concrete beams driven as far as 300 feet into the sand beneath it. The horizontal beams prevent the vertical ones from slipping in the unstable footing.
Self-Sufficient Living Space
Saddam's installation bunker was designed to support the leader and his staff for up to 30 days in the event of a conventional attack, and five days in a nuclear attack. Plus, the engineer said it has these features:
A "technical block" with huge storage containers of water and fuel, and an American-built turbo-diesel electric power plant.
A "sanitation block" with filters for air and water designed to avoid any contamination from nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. The engineer said the complex has an air-conditioning system built by American Carrier, a U.S. firm.
A "command center" with modern communication systems, including one built by Thomson, a French company, and an American-made H-field electronic security system to prevent monitoring by the enemy.
An elaborate series of baffles and buffers to suppress blasts within the complex, including anti-blast doors that can withstand the impact overpressures of a conventional bomb blast.
Both bunkers contained luxurious appointments for the two leaders, the engineer said. Tito's contained Louis XIV-style furniture and gold-plated taps. While the rooms in Saddam's bunker were smaller, "he also wanted luxury at the top level," the engineer said. "With Saddam there is this difference. He has three wives, so you have to make three wives' bedrooms, plus a fourth for — how shall I put it? — for servicing Saddam."
Another difference is that Saddam's bunker has only two emergency exits — making it dangerously inferior to Tito's, the engineer said. "At Tito's bunker we had five emergency exits with five separate routes across the mountain.... It will be much easier to bury Saddam Hussein. If you hit one exit directly, then the other, he's got just 90 hours to live inside."
Saddam's bunker was completed in 1990, the engineer said.
Vulnerable to 'Bunker-Busters'
If the United States and its allies go to war with Iraq again, the engineer does not believe they would succeed in destroying Saddam's bunker with the kind of conventional ordnance that NATO forces dropped on Serbia in 1999 during the Kosovo conflict.
But he believes that specialized "bunker-buster" weapons might have a chance. In the dozen years since cruise missiles first failed to destroy Saddam's hideout, a top priority for U.S. military research and development has been to develop shells hardened with depleted uranium and equipped with time-delay fuses. The weapons are designed to smash through a bunker's concrete shell, then explode inside.
The engineer who helped build Saddam's bunker believes that the new weapons might have a chance of breaking through the 16-foot concrete shell and destroying what is inside. "Three laser-guided bombs, one after another? Case closed. Kaput," he says.