Mosul, Iraq
March 1998

Whop, whop, whop, whop—the helicopter circled the landing area, a macadam road in the desert, thirty kilometers southeast of Mosul. The downdraft, propelled by the rotor blades, peppered the work crew with swirls of sand. From his vantage point in the chopper, Ari Bugari could see in the distance the oil wells pumping the liquid gold from Iraq’s most productive oil field.

“Salaam,” he shouted as he alighted from the aircraft with his bodyguards in tow. At six foot two and 190 pounds, he towered over most of his crew as they gathered around him to hear the latest news. Ari Bugari, brilliant communications network engineer, was recruited in December by the Iraqi interior minister to design and implement a communication network that would withstand enemy attack. Ari recommended a network of six command-and-control centers tied together by a series of interlocking grids that would assure full redundancy.

He and his crew had been on the road for six weeks, surveying areas that were appropriate locations for the six command-and-control centers. Five centers had been approved in five different regions of the country. Now the six men were waiting to hear the news on the northeast or sixth center. They had laid out the perimeter markers, and if the soil samples passed muster, they could finally go home.

“Gather around,” he said. Clean-shaven and in Western attire—designer jeans and a light mauve polo shirt—Ari stood in stark contrast to his crew of bearded engineers and land surveyors in their drab Arab attire. “I received word an hour ago that the soil samples are adequate for the construction of the sixth site, so you can wrap it up here and go home to your families. A chopper will pick you up in one hour to fly you home. I’ll see you at the ministry tomorrow morning.”

The men hooped and hollered at the news and slapped Ari on the back as he embraced each of them. He boarded the chopper with his bodyguards and wondered why the interior minister felt that he needed protection. The six weeks had gone without incident, and Ari began to suspect that the guards’ real mission was to keep him under surveillance. A half hour later he landed at the Mosul army base. There, in the headquarters building, he finalized the report he would give the interior minister in the morning. “Call for the chopper,” he said to one of his bodyguards as he logged off his laptop and packed it in its case.

The silence was marred by a whoosh followed by an explosion and a flash of distant light. From his training, he recognized that it was a mortar shell. Before he could move, his bodyguards sitting nearby grasped his arms and literally carried him out the door. There they encountered sporadic machine gun and small-arms fire, the bullets raising plumes of sand as they dug into the ground, spraying their bodies with the damp sand. The orange and yellow flames raging in the nearby barracks area illuminated the night. The barracks had been the first area that had come under fire. Soldiers were streaming out, some jumping from the second-floor deck in an attempt to escape the carnage.

An explosion knocked them off their feet. When Ari looked back, the headquarters building, which housed an ammunition dump in the basement, exploded and burned wildly in a mass of red, orange, and yellow flames. He looked for his bodyguards. One was moaning and the other was lying still with a big gash across his scalp, blood covering his face and streaming down his neck. Ari realized that he couldn’t stay in the open field. The fighting on his left was fierce, and the mortar rounds and artillery shells were continuing to pound the camp. It would be only a matter of minutes before they would target his area.

He crawled over to the bodyguard with the head wound. He had stopped bleeding; he was dead. Ari rose, lifted the other wounded bodyguard over his shoulder, and ran to the shelter of the drainage ditch on the side of the road thirty yards away. He examined the wounded man. He was bleeding profusely from a leg wound, and a piece of shrapnel had severed an artery. He wrapped the man’s belt around the leg to stem the flow of blood. Dragging the wounded man, he crawled his way to the road where a three-foot culvert ran the length of the crossroad. He eased the wounded man into the culvert.

Ari was spent. Although he was in excellent physical condition as a result of his recent training, the weight of the wounded man had worn him down. He needed a few minutes to rest. Except for a few minor cuts, he had escaped unscathed. No sooner had he settled in the culvert than he remembered the laptop. He had laid it down when he checked the dead bodyguard. He had to retrieve it. The entire command-and-control system plan and specifications were stored on its hard drive, among other data that could be compromising if discovered by the Iraqis. He surveyed the area. Mortar fire was still pelting the terrain that he had just vacated. He spotted the firing pattern. The rounds were falling from right to left and were now falling about ten yards in front of the drainage ditch.

After the next mortar round, he ran to the spot where he had left his laptop. The only light was from the yellow and orange flames dancing in the sky above the camp, but it provided adequate illumination. He heard moaning and gunfire coming from his left but couldn’t see anything. Miraculously, he managed to locate the laptop. He retrieved it and ran toward the cover of the drainage ditch. About a yard from his destination, he felt a sharp thud in his right leg that sent him and the laptop sprawling. He crawled to the laptop, grasped it in his hand, and continued crawling. When he reached the safety of the drainage ditch, he took off his belt, wrapped it around his leg tightly, and began to crawl to the culvert. A few feet ahead, a loud explosion rocked his body. The last thought he had was of Hannah, and then there was nothing.

He woke up in a strange place, his head spinning, his eyes unfocused, blinking rapidly and generating multiple images. It took him several seconds to focus. He sensed another person nearby, but he saw no one. “Where am I?” he uttered to no one in particular.

“You’re in the military hospital in Mosul.”

It took several seconds to regain his bearings. “And who are you?”

“I’m Doctor Aziz. You have been here for two days with a concussion and a leg wound. You are fortunate to be alive. If the skirmish had lasted a few more hours, you’d have bled to death.”

Ari’s head was spinning, and it took him even longer to ask the next question. “What happened?”

“The Kurds attacked the army barracks and caused many casualties. When the attack ended, we cleaned up the mess. We recovered you and your laptop in the ditch by the main road.”

“And my bodyguard?”

“He went into shock. We tried to save him, but he didn’t make it.”

“When can I leave?” Ari said wearily.

“Not for a few weeks, Mr. Alireza. You have been slipping in and out of consciousness with periods of intense hallucinations.
We want to make sure you’re stable before we release you. By the way, who’s Hannah?”

A rush of adrenalin flushed Ari out of his haze, causing a moment of alertness. What else had he revealed in his stupor? He thought.

The doctor caught the reaction. There was a long moment of awkward silence as doctor and patient suspiciously scrutinized each other.

“The love of my life,” Ari said wearily as he slipped back into unconsciousness.

Air Force One
Baghdad, Iraq
December 24, 2004

Air Force One, the presidential aircraft, lumbered to runway one, guided by a lone jeep with half-blacked-out lights, its four whining turbo jet engines disquieting the stillness of the vast airport. The runway lights at Baghdad International Airport had been extinguished by order of John Romano, the chief of the president’s Secret Service detail. Except for the red taillights of the jeep, the pilots were operating in total darkness. Now, on Romano’s order, the pilots cut the engines and docked the aircraft on the edge of the runway. Except for the lights in the interior of the aircraft, the entire area was in total darkness.

Gerald Winthrop Burke, the forty-third president of the United States, was resting in his private suite in the nose of the aircraft after the grueling forty-eight-hour trip to celebrate the holiday season with the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. He had enjoyed the interaction with the troops and was delighted that he’d made the trip. But he was tired and was looking forward to sacking out as soon as they were airborne.

Outside the president’s suite, the big frame of John Romano, the former Boston College All-American left tackle, a foreboding look on his face and ringlets of sweat forming on his forehead, paced back and forth from the galley to the president’s suite. He had begun this ritual at 9:30 pm when Burke had boarded the aircraft. He looked at his watch; it registered 10:00 pm. If we can get through the next hour, we will be home free, he thought. Romano possessed a sixth sense and had an uncanny facility to anticipate problems. He had tried to dissuade the president from visiting the troops because he felt that he couldn’t guarantee the president’s safety in the war zones. But he’d lost that battle, and now all he could do was wait and pray. Isn’t that what the Jesuit fathers taught him at Boston College?

In his private cabin, President Burke poured himself a cup of coffee and, while waiting for the aircraft to depart, reviewed the events of the past two months. His grueling victorious reelection campaign mustered enough votes for him to win and give the Republicans a majority in both houses of Congress. However, it was evident during the campaign that support for his policies on the global war on terrorism was dwindling. After 9/11, his approval rating was in the high seventies. Now it was barely in the low fifties and on a downward trend. Burke was aware that the people were weary of the Iraqi war, and for good reasons. After the defeat of Saddam and the disintegration of his army, his administration made some egregious tactical errors in the occupation of the country. The disbanding of the Iraqi army and discharging Baath party members from their jobs were the two key decisions that lost the peace after winning the war. While his subordinates made those decisions, Burke assumed full responsibility for this fiasco.

Burke believed that his second term presented an opportunity to make his mark on history and leave a legacy behind that future historians would see as the single initiative that led to victory on the global war on terrorism. He was certain that the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be the catalyst that would finally bring peace to the region and result in harmonious relations between the Muslim and non-Muslim world. Moreover, he would forever be known as the president who finally had the courage and the tenacity to solve this thorny problem that had been plaguing the Middle East and the civilized world for sixty years. He envisaged that when the history of the twenty-first century was written, he would be placed in the top tier of world leaders, among the likes of FDR, Churchill, and de Gaulle.

And what better way to establish his independence from his department heads and the vice president? He thought. He would show them who was really running the show. Burke felt that his motives weren’t entirely selfish. He firmly believed that the Muslim community had a legitimate gripe against the United States.

He recalled the November 20 meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon. Apparently Sharon thought that the meeting would be business as usual—a promise to the president to negotiate with his Palestinian counterpart, a reward of additional military aid from the United States for that promise, a return to Israel with the assurance that the United States had been appeased, and finding or fabricating a myriad of excuses to delay, abort, or prolong negotiations. Burke had experienced two such cycles, and he wasn’t about to experience a third repetition of the charade.

The president began, “As you know, this administration and all prior administrations have been supportive of Israel. We have a long history with Israel, and over the years we’ve declared our neutrality on the Palestinian issue. In all honesty, looking at the record, I’ve concluded that while our words spoke neutrality, our actions in this and past administrations said otherwise. I’ve concluded that we must change our policy if we are ever to have credibility and achieve harmony with the Muslim world.”

Sharon, caught off guard by the president’s opening remarks, moved forward in his chair. The president continued, “Mr. Prime Minister, the reason I asked for this meeting is to inform you that our policy dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has changed. I’ve gone through a great deal of soul searching on this issue, and I believe that there will never be peace if we follow the current paradigm.”

The president stopped, locked his laser eyes on Sharon, and was about to continue when Sharon said indignantly, “What do you mean?”

“For starters, I don’t think that you’re committed to the peace process.” At this point Sharon tried to interrupt the president. Burke raised his hand to stop him and continued. “Frankly, Mr. Prime Minister, you say the right words, but your actions belie your words.”

“Are you calling me a liar?”

Burke wanted to say yes but thought better of it and adopted a more conciliatory tone. “Let’s look at the facts. When I agreed to isolate Arafat, whom you said you didn’t trust enough to deal with, and the Palestinians appointed Habbas as prime minister, you killed that relationship by continuing to build settlements on the West Bank and East Jerusalem contrary to the UN resolution. When Qurei replaced Habbas, you aborted that discussion by building the wall in Palestinian territory in violation of your own courts and the world court. Surely you don’t think your obfuscation was lost on the Palestinians or on the rest of the world?”

“Mr. President, the fact remains that neither of these two so-called leaders was capable of stopping the terrorist attacks, and until they disarm all the terrorists, I won’t talk about peace.”

The president moved forward in his chair. “That’s just the point; there will never be peace with that frame of mind. One Palestinian could frustrate the peace process for years on end. I’ve decided that the only option for negotiations to bear fruit in our lifetime is to force the issue by giving both Israel and Palestine an ultimatum to adopt my version of the Road Map.” Burke then proceeded to outline in detail the terms of the mandated agreement.

Sharon was furious. He felt betrayed by Burke and the United States, and he made a futile attempt to change Burke’s mind. The exchange got so heated that at one point they were arguing toe to toe, and for a moment, it seemed that they would come to blows.

Sharon moved to the edge of his chair, his face a crimson red, the veins on his neck pulsating. “I can’t accept your plan, and I reject it out of hand. The Israeli people will not accept it,” he shouted.

They both rose, Burke towering over the short squat frame of the prime minister. Jabbing his index finger in the direction of Sharon’s chest, he said, “Think again, Mr. Prime Minister. The latest polls show that 72 percent of Israelis are willing to trade land for peace; it’s the ruling elite that haven’t come to grips with reality.”

They went at it for another hour—Sharon attempting to talk Burke into modifying his stance and Burke trying to get Sharon to see the light. Finally, Burke looked at Sharon and said in a conciliatory tone, “Mr. Prime Minister, you know that, up until now, the United States has vetoed every Security Council resolution that would mandate a settlement adverse to Israeli interests. My timeline is to bring Israel and Palestine to the table for meaningful negotiations by January. If I don’t receive a positive response from your government for the whole package by January 2, I want to make it clear that the United States won’t use its veto power to block any future UN resolutions that address the peace process, and that includes a mandate for a two-state solution.”

He let that thought lie there for a long second and then stood, indicating that the meeting was over. Sharon stalked out of the office seething with fury, ignoring the president’s extended hand.

Now looking back at his meeting with Sharon, Burke chuckled. Perhaps last month he should have been less blunt, more conciliatory. Threatening Sharon with an embargo and a cessation of eight billion dollars in aid was probably too harsh and perhaps counterproductive. He poured himself another cup of coffee. The presidential seal on the cup caught his attention. He viewed it from several angles and thought of the power that the seal represented. Had he gone beyond the normal conventions of diplomacy in his dealings with Sharon? He took another sip of coffee, reflected on this last thought, and shook his head. The arrogant son of a bitch deserved to be humiliated, he concluded.

When he had shared his strategy with his advisors—Chief of Staff Drew Crotty, Domestic Policy Advisor Carl Anders, and National Security Advisor Samantha Robins—prior to meeting with Sharon, they forewarned him that forcing a solution would be a long hard slog with a slew of unintended consequences. He had bet the ranch that he would succeed in resolving the conflict where others had failed. However, he now realized that there was no turning back. Since that fateful day in November, as predicted by his advisors, he had lost the support of part of his conservative base, infuriated the Israeli lobby, jeopardized his domestic programs, and placed the second term of his presidency at risk. After his discussion with John Romano before boarding the aircraft, he realized that he also had placed his life at risk.

Burke looked at the clock on the wall. It registered 10:30 pm in Baghdad and 2:30 pm in the nation’s capital, eight hours earlier. If all went well, he would be home in time to celebrate another Christmas with his family.

At exactly 10:30 pm, John Romano gave the pilot permission to take off. “Prepare for takeoff, and buckle your seatbelts,” came the pilot’s voice over the intercom. Burke eased his six-foot frame into his captain’s chair molded to fit his lithe body. A shock of steel gray hair hung over his handsome angular face. Now, at the direction of the pilot, he buckled his seat belt for takeoff. Even the president has to follow directions, he thought with a bemused expression on his face. He thought of his Italian grandmother’s favorite saying. “Che sarà, sarà,” he said to no one in particular as Air Force One roared down the runway.

As the aircraft, with the four turbo jet engines at full throttle, sped down the unlit runway, Romano thought of the last-minute defensive move he had made to protect the president. And as the aircraft began to climb, he prayed that he’d made the right decision. He was unaware that his massive hands were tightly squeezing the armrests—his white knuckles in stark contrast to his damp red face.

Al-Hussan Mosque
Baghdad, Iraq
December 24, 2004

Four kilometers from the airport, al-Zarqawi, the commander of al-Qaeda in Iraq, paced the floor in the basement of the mosque, which at the moment served as his headquarters, oblivious to the damp fetid odor. Back and forth he paced, from the table that he used as a desk to the improvised communications center located on the opposite wall. And with each trip, as he looked at the clock on the wall, he became more agitated.

He had planned carefully for this moment. When he heard of the American president’s visit, he assigned Hassam Ali Alireza, one of his brightest men, to plan the assassination. He had only hate for the infidels, and he placed the American president at the top of the list because of America’s unconditional support of Israel. While the Palestinians were being systematically slaughtered by the Israelis, the Americans refused to support the UN resolutions that called for sanctions if the Israelis didn’t comply. Assassinating the American president would send a message to the world that no one was beyond al-Qaeda’s reach.

He eyed the clock one more time—10:30 pm. He should have heard by now. He had informants at the airport and in the green zone. It was odd that there was no word. “Hakim,” he called out to his communications man, “any news yet?”

“The commander from Mosul reported a successful IED detonation, at least five American casualties.” Hakim didn’t get the usual ebullient reaction from Zarqawi at such good news. Instead, Zarqawi grabbed Hakim by the lapels of his shirt and slammed him against the stone wall. Zarqawi, a volatile man, could be both brutal and charismatic, and Hakim, confused and hurting, wondered what news Zarqawi was expecting that caused such a violent reaction.

After a few more paces Zarqawi barked again, “Hakim, get me Ali.”

A few minutes later, one of his men came running down the steps from the mosque.

“Did you want to see me, Sheikh?” he said.

“Not you,” he roared. “I want Alireza."

Mossad Headquarters
Tel Aviv, Israel
December 24, 2004

Two hundred sixty miles southwest of Baghdad, in Tel Aviv, the director general of the Mossad, Shalom Eitan, a nondescript, short, soft-spoken man with thinning gray hair and a cherubic red face, sat at his desk, his rheumy gray eyes glued to the CNN news station. With the massive ring on his finger, he beat a rhythmic chant on the mahogany desk. While he could pass for someone’s grandfather, he was not the benign man he appeared to be but was a ruthless, shrewd, noncompromising leader of perhaps the most effective intelligence organization in the world.

The volume was on mute, his interest centered on the streaming captions on the bottom of the screen conveying the latest breaking news and on the screen of the laptop on his desk reflecting his e-mail window. He was the only one remaining on the executive floor, the last of his colleagues having departed hours ago. Usually they didn’t leave until he left, but tonight he had encouraged them to go home to their families. He wanted to be the sole occupant of the executive floor.

Tap … tap … tap … The incessant sound from the ring striking the mahogany table radiated around the room. Eitan was oblivious to the cadence, his eyes riveted to the screen and his ears tuned to the laptop. He turned and looked at the clock on the console—10:30 pm. He was a patient man, perhaps his only virtue, but even he had his limits. He would give it another hour; Ari Bugari had not disappointed him yet.