Clues in Iraqi bakery help uncover tunnel plot

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

MOSUL, Iraq -- Lt. Christopher Hanes knew something was wrong as soon as he stepped into the Friends bakery. The oven was unused, the water tank was empty and a large concrete bin was full of dirt that the two employees claimed was used to cool cakes.

Hanes and his soldiers moved the water tank and found the entrance to a 50-foot tunnel heading straight for the nearby provincial government headquarters.

The U.S. military believes insurgents planned to tunnel underneath the compound's blast walls and blow up the headquarters building. With 250 to 300 Iraqis working in the governor's office and perhaps hundreds more there for business, casualties from such a blast could have been catastrophic.

Discovery of the tunnel Sept. 1, the first day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, drove home a message: Sunni militants have been battered but not defeated despite an operation by U.S. and Iraqi forces to clear Mosul, Iraq's third largest city, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad.

Al-Qaida in Iraq and other extremists are still thinking up ways to launch novel attacks -- sometimes working within earshot of Iraqi security forces.

Still, soldiers from the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment didn't expect to find anything when they showed up at the bakery. They'd heard from Iraqi informants that the tunnel was there. But not every tip pans out.

"It is not the first time we have responded to tunnel stories," said Capt. Avery Barnett of Carthage, Mo. "And we thought this one would be ridiculous. But it wasn't."

Inside the tunnel, troops found a map indicating the militants planned to dig two branch tunnels toward other buildings in the government compound.

"There was a map with targets on it. They were definitely going to drop the provincial hall." Hanes said. "We tested the hands of the two individuals for explosives and they came back positive for TNT."

The two Iraqis were promptly arrested. A U.S. military statement identified them as al-Qaida operatives. American soldiers ran their names through a database of detainees and found their pictures -- indicating they had been arrested but released, possibly for lack of evidence or in an amnesty announced early this year.

"When I showed the man with glasses his picture and said `this is you,' he started crying," Hanes said.

Not surprisingly, people in the area claimed no knowledge of what was going on in the bakery.

"They were new guys who rented the bakery and they wouldn't let anyone inside the shop," said Mutab Ahmed Jumaa, who sells tombstones from a shop next door. "I don't know them."

Late that night, a team of Army engineers arrived at the bakery and filled the tunnel with concrete.

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