BAGHDAD -- The mission was to get Simba al-Tikriti out of Iraq and to a new life in Britain.
First, a roadside bomb nearly wiped out the taxi heading to the border with Kuwait. The next step was to hide under tarps in the back of a truck. More hardship awaited: six months caged by authorities in England.
But freedom eventually came for Simba, who walked away from captivity with tail held high.
So began the improbable work of the self-proclaimed "Cat Lady of Baghdad."
"Some people buy flash cars, others flash clothes. But it's my animals that float my boat," said Louise, a security consultant in Baghdad who moonlights as a one-woman animal rescue unit.
Since Simba's journey three years ago, Louise has managed to send four more cats and two dogs back to her native England. The costs -- up to $3,500 an animal -- are covered by donations and her "old stuff" sold on eBay. Any animal imported into Britain must go through a six-month quarantine.
Louise, a blunt-speaking former soldier who asked that her last name not be used because of security concerns, also has private battles to wage with Iraqi bureaucracy. Completing piles of paperwork, calling countless officials and, on one occasion, bursting into tears at the airport have all been required to get animals out of the war zone.
Her quest started when Simba, a white cat with "tabby bits," strolled onto a U.S. military base where she worked near Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad.
An Iraqi working with Louise was heading to Basra in southern Iraq. She asked if he could take Simba to the border with Kuwait, where an English friend would be waiting.
Just south of Baghdad, a car bomb exploded a few yards from the cab, but no one was hurt. At the border, the cab crossed into Kuwait with the cat hidden.
It is impossible to gauge how many dogs, cats and other animals have been rescued the past five years by soldiers and foreigners. The London-based Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad says there are no established groups actively working in Iraq to rescue small animals.
In March, Marine Maj. Brian Dennis was reunited with Nubs after his family and friends raised money to fly the 2-year-old mutt from Iraq to San Diego. Dennis had found the hound stabbed with a screwdriver in Iraq's Anbar province and nursed him back to health.
Many Western companies have one or more pets living in their compounds, and cats and dogs are often seen on military bases. It can be a shock for many Iraqis, who are unaccustomed to having pets and who especially -- following widely held Muslim tradition -- eschew dogs as unclean.
In January, Iraqi security guards and maintenance workers watched with bemusement as Zeus, one of the dogs Louise rescued, was lavished with belly scratches and other doggy treats by Westerners before it was flown to England.
About the only time smaller animals see a vet is to be put down.
Thousands of stray cats and dogs in Baghdad's Green Zone and on U.S. military installations have been trapped and euthanized under a U.S.-funded program. Strays can spread rabies and other diseases that could be transmitted to soldiers, said Lt. Col. Raymond F. Dunton, chief of preventive medicine for the military in Iraq.
Last year, nearly 7,100 animals were caught in humane traps, Dunton said. Of those, about 5,300 were euthanized.
At least four of them were cats that Dennis Quine had been planning to take back to his native England.
Quine, a former contract maintenance worker for the British Embassy in Baghdad, befriended five feral cats last August. When he returned from a vacation in December, he learned the cats had been caught.
After about a week of searching in the evenings, he finally found the lone survivor, Missy. Quine had heard about Louise and with her help was able to get the cat out of Iraq.
"Friends have said it is stupid, asked why I'm doing this," he said. "I tell them, 'Hold on, this is nothing less than what I'd do for a friend.' I was prepared to risk my life to get my cat out."
On the Net:
Baghdad Cat Rescue: http://www.baghdadcatrescue.com
Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad: http://www.spana.org