QANDAHAR

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Chapter 16

23 March 2009

6:32 a.m. GMT+3hrs.

Ras Tanura, Saudi Arabia

Tarut Bay, Persian Gulf

Fishermen on board a small fleet of passing dhows heard a series of sequential, echoing blasts, each followed by loud, splashing thuds, as if a giant creature had slammed its fists on the seawater’s surface. Roustabouts feverishly working on huge drilling ships and off-shore rigs also heard the explosions: One, two or three were simultaneous, then two others and more, one after another. They stopped and looked up. No helicopters or other aircraft were overhead.

At dawn, the fishermen and the roustabouts had only seen in the early morning light oil tankers and three small freighters steaming toward Ras Tanura, a long peninsula jutting into the Persian Gulf. Catwalks supporting long sections of piping stretched thousands of yards over dark, blue-green seawater from the world’s largest oil and liquefied natural gas terminal.

Echoes of delayed, radiating sound waves startled crewmen on board two U.S. Navy patrol ships skimming Persian Gulf waters northeast of Ad Dammam, Saudi Arabia. The captain of the Thunderbolt radioed the USS Hue City, approximately 125 nautical miles north of Ras Tanura.

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8 a.m. GMT+3hrs.

Green Zone, Baghdad, Iraq

“Will you make the July 1st deadline?” President Forster was seated at the head of a table inside a concrete bunker, three-levels below the U.S. Embassy’s marbled-floor lobby and reception area.

“I believe we can, Madam President,” said Army Lt. Gen. Joaquin Hernandez, commander of U.S. military forces in Iraq. “Our troops appear eager to leave, ma’am.” The general turned from

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the President and looked across the table at another general, commander of a Marine regiment stationed in Al-Anbar Province. Forster noticed the Army general’s scowling face and shifting head and eye movements.

“But what, General Hernandez,” asked the President, “you have doubts?”

“If I may interrupt, Madam President,” said Marine General Peter Dunbar, “I think what General Hernandez wants to tell you, and he and I have been talking about it a great deal, is that we’ve been experiencing some major losses since you made your announcement to withdraw American soldiers and Marines from Iraq.”

“Ma’am,” said Hernandez, “the Sunni and Shiite militia groups are specifically targeting our barracks since we pulled all the troops out of combat situations. We’re seein’ more car bombs, suicide bombers galore and a hell of a lot more mortar and rocket attacks. It’s a real mess, ma’am.”

“What about the Iraqi military and police?” Forster crossed her legs beneath the table and leaned forward. “Aren’t they doing their jobs to make sure these attacks start dying down, at least?”

“Frankly, ma’am,” said Dunbar, “for all the training we gave them, they’re not holdin’ up their end of the bargain.”

The fortified Green Zone had been under intermittent bombardment overnight, a few hours before President Forster arrived. At least 15 rocket-propelled grenades and 80-millimeter mortars rained into the compound. Two U.S. Marine security guards and four Iraqi soldiers were killed; eight Marines and thirteen Iraqis were wounded. Civilians living outside the massive compound,

particularly in the Mansour and Yarmouk districts of the city, also were hit. At least 36 civilians had been killed.

A civil war between Sunnis and Shiite militias had erupted at the end of December into a three-way contest for political and economic supremacy. The Kurds in northeastern Iraq now were fighting off Shiite militia forces coming from Abdul Aziz’s base in Sadr City, a Baghdad slum. And Abdul Aziz’s private army was roaming Baghdad neighborhoods attacking American soldiers who

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showed their faces on the streets while backing up inept and outnumbered Iraqi army or police forces. Reconstruction work on the city’s electric power grids and substations was, for all practical purposes, halted. It had been that way for weeks. What had been rebuilt one day was destroyed that night or the next day. Very little water was being pumped; sewers remained fetid. Health officials already had reported a cholera outbreak in Baghdad’s Dora and Sadiya districts.

Al-Basrah Province in the country’s extreme southeast and Al-Anbar Province in the far west were no different. American troops training, assisting or helping in reconstruction were easy targets. Helpless Iraqi citizens were caught in the middle. Since the first of the year, an estimated 3,500 had been killed in the two provinces alone.

Forster cringed when the generals showed her the latest American casualty figures for March. So far, the total stood at 251, the highest for a month since the invasion of Iraq, and the month had another eight days to go.

She wished now she’d met only with the American generals. Her meeting with Iraq’s Prime Minister at his plush, Green Zone office did not go well.

The Prime Minister turned to two slick-haired, dark-suited aides and yelled at them in Arabic when Forster mentioned her plan for peacekeeping units of Egyptian, Saudi, Iranian and Syrian troops coming to Iraq wearing United Nations “blue” helmets. The Prime Minister quickly

turned back to Forster, his right hand gesturing, his index finger waving close to her face. “How dare you replace your American troops with those Sunni dogs from Saudi Arabia and Egypt,”

Ahmed Omar al-Jabbar said, spitting out the words in rapid-fire Arabic. President Forster raised her hands as a U.S. Army translator whispered a literal translation. She lowered her arms and stepped toward the Prime Minister, a Shiite. Agents Nunez and Watson stood directly behind the President, their right hands reaching for their weapons.

“Under the circumstances, Mr. Prime Minister,” said Forster, “I’d appreciate it very much if you spoke in English and not yell at me as if I were one of your wives. I know how many you have.

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So, do we have an understanding on this, sir?” She stepped back and awaited a response, fully expecting another outburst in Arabic. The Prime Minister looked to the floor and started to smile. When he spoke, he never made eye contact with the President.

“It is not good for me to raise my voice after a full meal,” Omar al-Jabbar said in perfect English. He had been educated at the London School of Economics. “But I will never apologize to anyone for letting my true thoughts be known. You Americans are all the same. You bleed a little bit, you cry and then, as you say, take your football and go home. My words are not for you, Mrs. Forster. They are aimed at President Morris, whom I had the distinct misfortune to meet months ago. He is a scoundrel of worthless, self-made importance. You, madam, are only here to clean up his mess. You are merely his lap dog. My country now will choose its friends, and choose them wisely, I must say. Future generations of you apathetic Americans will rue the day your armies of butchers landed in Iraq and occupied it. I have nothing further to say to you, madam. I wish you all the success I hope you never achieve.”

President Forster and Iraq’s Prime Minister stood motionless, not speaking for a few moments. The President was staring at Omar al-Jabbar’s pock-marked face, his dark, runny eyes when he suddenly did an about-face and walked out of the office, his aides slamming a set of double doors behind him.

The President had left the Aqaba conference dejected, disappointed that Saudi and Egyptian officials had expressed little enthusiasm for her peacekeeping proposal. In fact, they were non- committal. The Syrian and Iranian foreign ministers had sat in their chairs expressionless, except for their eyes, which darted back and forth between her and the Egyptian President and the Saudi Prime Minister. What were they are waiting for, what are they thinking about? Forster thought at the time.

Forster had flown into Baghdad on the Air Force’s “Spirit of Berlin” C-17 cargo plane, with a jet-fighter escort. The massive, four-engine Globemaster III landed about 6:30 in the morning.

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With her were agents Watson and Nunez, Helen Brown and Press Secretary Claire Higgins. National Security Advisor Connors had left Aqaba with Israeli Prime Minister Ish-Shalom and flew to Tel Aviv to brief him on details on the coming weekend’s meeting at Camp David.

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8:07 a.m. GMT+3hrs

Ras Tanura

Tarut Bay, Persian Gulf

A remote electronic signal had triggered blasting caps inside rubber seals imbedded in two, ten-foot high by twenty-foot wide outer sections above the hull’s water line on the Barreiro’s port side. The four-inch wide seals that wrapped around each hull section were laden with plastique, shaped charges. Sadiq himself set off the first charge. Similar blasts occurred in sequence around port-side hull sections on the Chavez and the Coimbra.

The outer bulkhead sections had dropped with a loud, cracking thump and sprayed volumes of seawater over the Gulf’s calm surface. The heavy, steel panels plummeted to the Gulf’s sandy floor. Seconds after the Barreiro’s two hull sections blew out, ten-foot wide by thirty-foot long ramps – heavy, rubberized canvas reinforced with aluminum and hinged at the bottom of the hull’s opening – were lowered slowly to the water’s surface. The ramps, tethered with cables, were able to hold the weight of two fully armed and loaded Omega boats at one time. A twin series of block-and-tackle pulleys propelled four manned Omega boats from inside the lower deck of the Barreiro onto the two ramps.

Sadiq’s boat was the first to hit the water. He piloted the boat, which quickly attained a maximum speed of forty miles per hour, and headed to the Ras Tanura liquefied natural-gas terminal. Two other Omega boats followed in his wake.

Seven other Omega boats leaving the Barreiro and twenty more ramping off the Chavez and the Coimbra headed to the terminal’s off-shore petroleum pumping stations, catwalks supporting

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thousands of yards of oil pipelines, tankers docked to take on crude oil and tankers leaving the terminal laden with crude oil and liquefied natural gas.

The Barreiro, the Chavez and the Coimbra, their port-side ramps pulled up and locked into place, steamed at less than ten knots toward tankers taking on crude oil pumped from huge, cylindrical land-based storage tanks.

Security towers at the Ras Tanura complex bristled with radio traffic. Two Saudi navy cruisers steaming about 15 nautical miles east of Tarut changed course. The U.S. Navy’s Thunderbolt and its sister patrol ship, the Firestorm, were alerted. They were more than 10 nautical miles east of Ras Tanura. The USS Hue City set a new course. Two SH-60 Sea Hawk helicopters lifted off the guided-missile cruiser, banked and turned and headed southwest.

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9:12 a.m. GMT+3hrs.

Baghdad International Airport

A battleship-gray Super Stallion Marine helicopter landed safely on a concrete apron during a light drizzle. Three escort Army Apache attack helicopters buzzed overhead. The President, with a military aide holding an umbrella over her head, walked briskly into a huge, three-story hangar. Trying to keep up behind her were agents Nunez and Watson, Helen Brown and Claire Higgins. Generals Dunbar and Hernandez and a small press contingent had followed the President’s helicopter in one of the Army’s Sikorsky Pavehawk helicopters.

Once under the hangar’s roof, Helen Brown took the President’s rain jacket and folded it over her arm. “How do I look? And be nice to me,” Forster said, running her hands through her hair, fluffing it on one side.

“Not bad, considering where you are,” said Brown, pushing back loose strands of hair on the President’s head. “They’ll just love you.” She also straightened the back of Forster’s pantsuit jacket, pulling up the blouse’s collar, pressing it down over the jacket’s collar.

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“Remind me,” said Forster, “never to ride in one of those noisy, bone-jarring helicopters again. Get me back home so I can ride around in that Marine One. So much more comfortable.”

A Marine lieutenant stepped in front of Brown. “Excuse me, ma’am,” he said. “We’re running a little late.” He escorted the President through and around a series of offices into the hangar’s cavernous interior.

“Are you ready, ma’am?” General Peter Dunbar entered a waiting room minutes after the President, her Secret Service agents and Brown.

“Ah, yes general,” said Forster, feeling somewhat apprehensive about how she would be greeted by hundreds of Marines.

“Just follow me, ma’am,” said General Dunbar. “You have nothing to worry about.” He held out his left arm for the President. She slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow as he pulled back a curtain.

The applause was thunderous as the President and the General approached three grandstands full of cheering, shouting Marines from the Third Division’s Ninth Regiment. General Dunbar handed the President a remote microphone and stepped back. The President walked toward one grand-stand section, put the microphone close to her mouth and tried to speak. The chanting of “hoo-ah, hoo-ah” got louder and louder. The General came up behind the President, tapped her on the shoulder and took the microphone from her. He leaned close to her ear.

“Go ahead, ma’am,” he shouted. “They wanna meet ya. Shake their hands.”

Forster waded into the first row of grandstand seats, using both hands to greet any Marine who stuck out his or her hand or arm. Nunez and Watson quickly came up behind her but stopped, both deciding to keep their distance. After she’d reached the third grandstand, General Dunbar escorted her to the middle of the hangar and handed the microphone back to her. She stood awhile longer until the shouting died down.

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“I thank you,” she said into the microphone, “from the bottom of my heart for the months, and for some of you, years of service in Iraq.” She lowered the microphone and looked to her left then right, smiling at a few of the Marines she had personally greeted. Forster needed a moment to collect her thoughts. She had no idea what she was going to say. She never expected the boisterous, yet very friendly greeting by these combat-hardened Marines. She began to choke up, then sniffled and closed her eyes for a second. She so much wanted to speak from her heart.

“You and all the other members of the U.S. military who fought here in Iraq –– ” She imagined for a fleeting second the thousands of soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen who’d never returned home from this war zone. “ –– have served with dignity and honor, the dignity and honor of true Marines. You all are Marines whom I’m very much proud of. Your exploits in Al-Anbar province help bring some semblance of peace and sanity to that huge western region. You have helped make it possible for the Iraqis themselves to realize that this is their country ... and they rightfully must make efforts to help rebuild this country and help bring about a stable and viable economy. And remember this, please. Without you, none of this would have been possible. I thank you, and the country thanks you. And God speed on your journey home to your loved ones. I wish you all the best.”

When Forster finished speaking, there was a momentary silence. Then a few Marines, then others began loudly applauding. A chorus of cheering erupted. The President smiled, raised her hands and spoke four words that only she could hear: “I love you all.” As she turned and walked toward General Dunbar her facial expression changed. She suddenly felt sorrowful, maudlin, morose. She wished there had never been wars waged in Iraq and Afghanistan. So many innocent lives, she thought, had been lost.

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12:47 a.m. CST.

Galveston Bay, Texas

Low-intensity floodlights barely illuminated the Vila Real’s top-side derrick cranes, fore and aft and mid-ship. Ten fully armed Omega boats were lowered slowly, one at a time, off Pelican Island. Heavily armed Afghan fighters were sitting and waiting in life boats bobbing along side the ship’s port side. An inflatable boat splashed down into the water; its assigned crew hurriedly pulled it over and stepped into it. Two of the boat’s crew unhooked the crane’s cable. They gave a thumbs-up to the crane operator. The cable rose swiftly in a whirring blur; the crane then swung around and lowered the cable back into the ship’s hold to lift out another Omega boat.

Abu Mahmoud had decided months ago on this method of getting forty Omega boats into the Bay’s Gulf waters. Any series of explosions that blew out hull sections would have alerted local authorities and at least three Coast Guard patrol ships now anchored in a narrow channel south of the Bay’s nearly two-mile wide entrance.

The Vila Real the night before had steamed into the Bay and headed northwest a half-mile. It came around toward Pelican Island, about two miles wide and three miles long, due west of the channel. After its Omega boats were unloaded, the cargo ship steamed southeast and stopped dead in the water, dropping bow and stern anchors in the middle of the channel’s narrow inlet. U.S. Coast Guard patrol ships effectively would be blocked from entering the Bay.

All ten of its Omega boats had begun patrolling the entrance to Galveston Bay. They traveled at slow speeds, at no more than seven knots, on a circuit heading northeast to Fort Travis and then back to the channel’s inlet.

Once the Vila Real had anchored, its crewmen pulled heavy canvas covers off two M-61A1 Gatling guns, mounted on the stern and bow decks. Each gun could fire 20-millimeter rounds at the rate of 3,000 per minute. A year before, the U.S.-made weapons system had been smuggled from a huge Pakistani navy arms depot.

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2:52 a.m. CST.

Off Hogg Island, Galveston Bay

The Cantanhede, the Tondela and the Seixal also were each armed with two rapid-fire Gatling guns. They had steamed north into a low-lying fog bank, managing to skirt shorelines along two, large mid-channel islands. Off a northern peninsula at Hogg Island, the ships’ derrick cranes had offloaded thirty Omega boats less than a mile south of a long, vehicular suspension bridge that linked the cities of La Porte and Baytown, Texas.

Abu Mahmoud circled the names of the cities on a map he was poring over in the Seixal’s wheelhouse. He looked up, peered out a port-side window. That’s it, that’s it, he thought. The Fred Hartman Bridge was dead ahead. Its towering, cable-stayed superstructure was awash in a hazy glow. Numerous mercury-vapor and fluorescent lamps were strung along the tops of nearly invisible light poles ringing each side of the bridge’s roadway, suspended some 180 feet above the northern reaches of Galveston Bay.

He walked behind the ship’s captain, seated in front of a green-glowing radar screen. Abu Mahmoud gazed out a starboard-side window at the lights along Baytown’s waterfront.

For a moment he visualized walking along Beirut’s beach promenade with his father and mother. He imagined children’s playgrounds, tennis courts and a once popular beachfront amusement park. He and his father had taken a ride on a brightly colored Ferris wheel on a hot, sunny afternoon. He remembered a soda he’d accidentally spilled on his father’s new suit of clothes when his mother inadvertently had bumped into him after the ride. To his surprise at the time, his fastidious father said nothing of the incident. He didn’t yell at me, like I expected. He just

took out a handkerchief and dabbed at the wet spots. He smiled at me and ran his hand through my hair. And Abu Mahmoud recalled a scary ride with his mother on the park’s main attraction: a roller-coaster that bobbed and weaved as it went up and down, jostled left and right on its tight-cornering tracks. For a second he wondered whether that years-ago world back in Lebanon had ever existed. Or was it just a vague childhood fantasy now rekindled for no apparent reason?

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He stepped outside the wheelhouse and leaned forward, hands holding the railing for support. Whatever thoughts he had about one day of his childhood in Beirut quickly disappeared in the rush of foul, pungent odors rising from the seawater below him. Abu Mahmoud bristled at the smell of acidic chemicals percolating, brewing along with spilled diesel fuel and leaked engine oil. That concoction had mixed with sewer and wastewater runoff from nearby cities that, he believed, must have poured into the Bay untreated. Dead fish, belly up, bobbed in the shallow reaches along Hogg Island’s coastline.

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Abu Mahmoud had taken months to devise a three-inch thick manual outlining the entire

Persian Gulf and Galveston Bay operations. It was imperative, he had told Sadiq Haqqani before he boarded the Barcelona at Karachi, that even the smallest details of the overall plan not be inadvertently missed or overlooked. The two had kept in daily satellite phone contact to make sure the twin operations followed a rigid time schedule.

During the long voyage from Karachi to Oman and around the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa, Abu Mahmoud’s flotilla had run into problems that set it back a few days. The voyage would have been shorter and much less difficult if the Sevilla, the Toledo, the Valencia and the Cartagena had gone through the Suez Canal and across the Mediterranean Sea before they reached the Atlantic. He was sorely tempted to follow that route just for the opportunity of seeing coastal Beirut one more time. But there was too much of a chance of U.S. Navy ships boarding his flotilla

and seizing the four ships. And surveillance through the Suez Canal would have been too risky as well.

Two of the ships had engine problems that took days to repair. Two days were lost when the Toledo’s engines began leaking diesel fuel off the coast of Madagascar. There had been a refueling stop at Mogadishu, Somalia. Another day was lost when fierce thunderstorms battered the ships off the Cape of Good Hope. The flotilla got three days behind schedule when the Cartagena’s engine

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suddenly broke down a day out from a second refueling stop at Praia, in the Cape Verde Islands. The ship had to be towed into port for repairs.

Four of the five lost days were made up, however. The four ships raced across the Atlantic at top speeds reaching 20 to 25 knots and managed to avoid storm centers and rough seas.

Nearly 80 Jihadist fighters on all four ships had gotten sick from food poisoning. Four had died, their bodies tossed into the Atlantic. Three others also had died, one during a live-fire exercise with AK-47s off the Sevilla’s stern. Another fell down a flight of steps and broke his neck; the third had fallen overboard.

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The fog would lift shortly after daybreak when soft, warm breezes blew across Galveston Bay from the Gulf. Abu Mahmoud then would raise his binoculars and focus on his target two miles directly north of the bridge: the massive Texas Gulf Oil terminal that sprawled across hundreds of acres of waterfront docks. At least ten supertankers would be unloading crude oil and liquefied natural gas into miles of piping attached to tank farms, pumping stations and refineries.

It was then when thirty Omega boats would race along the eastern shoreline of Alexander Island and attack the tankers docked at the Texas Gulf Oil terminal in the Houston Ship Channel. The Tondela and Cantanhede would follow behind at about fifteen knots, deadheading toward

Texas Gulf’s oil refinery and tank farms. The Seixal, with Abu Mahmoud on the bridge, would aim to destroy Texas Gulf’s liquefied natural-gas processing facility.

4:02 a.m. CST.

Galveston Channel docks

A Coast Guard HH-65 Dolphin search-and-rescue helicopter lifted off the USCG Cutter Norman Vincent to begin a patrol around Galveston Bay. After that, it would head out over the northwestern reaches of the Gulf of Mexico. Minutes after takeoff the aircraft’s pilot noticed that an old, but recently painted, freighter had blocked the entrance to the Galveston Channel inlet. He radioed a Coast Guard control tower along Galveston’s docks.

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“No running lights. Over,” said the pilot. The helicopter hovered some fifty yards behind the Vila Real. The co-pilot manipulated controls to two searchlights embedded in helicopter’s nosecone. “And no occupants on deck. Over.”

“Abandoned vessel? Over,” the dispatcher asked.

“Wait a minute,” said the pilot, maneuvering the craft closer to the ship. “Just saw someone running across the deck. Probably some low-life deckhand. Over.”

“Continue patrol sequence,” said the dispatcher. “We’ll take it from here. Over and out.” ___________

President Lorraine Forster leaned back into a padded jump seat bolted to an interior fuselage bulkhead behind the C-17’s cockpit. Very uncomfortable once again, she thought. She wanted to slip off her shoes, close her eyes and pretend she was somewhere else. Instead, she began hearing one-sided radio chatter between the pilot and co-pilot with an unseen control tower.

She stood up and walked across a grated metal floor to gaze out a starboard-side porthole window at artillery and tank emplacements and bunkered compounds. A 12-foot-high, chain-link, electric fence topped with barbed wire surrounded the perimeter of Baghdad International Airport’s terminal.

Forster had based her Iraq peacekeeping plan on sketchy suggestions she’d received from Secretary Wheeler and National Security Advisor Connors, two men she trusted implicitly. She had become unsettled about Secretary Steinmetz and began not to trust him. He just seemed to be of one mind only to follow orders, not provide any weighty feedback or suggestions on how to handle difficult, diplomatic and international quandaries. He’d offered no suggestions, even when asked, of how to deal with the Arabs attending the Aqaba conference.

She decided she’d have to talk to Wheeler about Steinmetz’s apparent lack of leadership when they were both back in Washington. Maybe he’s ... he’s not aggressive enough. I need a take-

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charge person at State. Replace him with someone a lot tougher and stronger? Should I talk to that Senator Hughes? She wasn’t sure. Her circle of close advisers included only two others in whom she had complete confidence: Helen Brown and Constance Stowe.

From Aqaba, the Syrian foreign minister had flown back to Damascus with Secretary Steinmetz; the Iranian foreign minister traveled to Teheran with Secretary Wheeler. Both governments would have to be briefed about the peacekeeping plan before any decisions were made. President Forster hoped there’d be enough time for the plan to be implemented. Otherwise, she believed, the people of the Middle East would suffer if Iraq descended further into a bloody, indecisive war of attrition among the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. No commitments resulted following individual discussions with the Egyptian President, the Saudi Prime Minister and Jordan’s King. King Nasim had chaffed at any suggestion that millions of Iraqi refugees would have to remain in his country a while longer until peace finally was restored in Iraq.

But Israeli Prime Minister Ish-Shalom promised to come to Camp David. He’d asked the President what was to be done about Hezbollah, which now controlled the Lebanese government and military. It had taken over in a coup in the summer of 2008. Fighting still raged in the streets and valleys of Lebanon between Hezbollah, the Druze faction and Maronite Christian militias.

Some settlements in northern Israel recently had been attacked. Forster had told Wheeler to talk to the Iranians about Hezbollah. “There has to be a ceasefire first,” she’d told him, “then I’m going to the U.N. and strongly urge that a peacekeeping force of Germans, French, Spaniards and Italians go to Lebanon before it’s too late there for any chance of peace.”

“Excuse me, ma’am,” the co-pilot said, opening the cockpit door. Forster turned quickly from looking out the window. “We’re about to take off. I’ll help you get strapped in.”

“Oh, thank you ... captain.” She noticed twin silver bars embroidered on each epaulette of his flight suit. “I’d hate to fall out,” she said jokingly. The flight-helmeted co-pilot laughed.

“We can’t have that now,” he said, “can we, Madam President?” She stepped to the jump

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seat, turned around and sat down. The co-pilot pulled out a set of straps attached to the bulkhead behind her and snapped them into a seat belt, pulling them snug around the President’s shoulders. “There we go, ma’am. Okay? You comfortable enough?”

“Yes, thank you,” she said. “Oh, uh, did Ms. Brown, my Chief of Staff, and the others get on board all right? I need to talk with them after we’re up in the air.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “They’re all strapped in down in the cargo bay like you are. I know it’s uncomfortable, but we got a short flight time until we land in Amman. Y’all be transferrin’ there to Air Force One. You’ll just have to wait until then. Sorry, ma’am.”

“Well,” she said. “I hope it’s a smooth flight. Maybe I can take a nap. I’m really very tired.” He handed her a headset with hard plastic cups that covered the ears. They resembled ear muffs.

“I’d put these on to help drown out the engine noise, ma’am.”

“Oh, yes,” she said. “Now, I remember. They came in handy during the flight in from Aqaba.” The co-pilot closed the cockpit door behind him.

The President folded her arms in front of her and strained to look out the porthole window, but she was seated too low and too far away to see anything except cloudy skies.

The C-17 taxied a short distance over a concrete apron and turned to take off. It braked to a stop for a few seconds. The President heard a steady, yet faint roar. Her body shook as four turbofan Pratt and Whitney engines revved up. The plane rattled, picking up speed, accelerating down a 13,000-foot runway. In seconds, it was airborne.

“It’s too late, sir,” a U.S. military flight controller said over the phone. “The President’s plane is taking off.”

“Abort the flight, for God sakes,” screamed Timothy Connors, who was calling from Israel, where he had been meeting with the Prime Minister. Connors had to tell the President about a terrorist attack on the Houston Ship Channel: Air Force Reserve gunships and fighter jets were in the air over Galveston Bay and three cargo ships had rammed into the Texas Gulf Oil terminal,

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causing massive explosions, fires and untold property damage. He also wanted to report to the President about similar attacks on a massive petroleum facility in Saudi Arabia.

“They’re in the air, sir. Wheels up.” the flight controller said. “I’ll patch you through to the pilot as soon as the plane levels out.”

On-board flight computers activated a missile warning system as the C-17 made an abrupt, forty-five-degree ascent.

An eye-level digital clock in front of the co-pilot started a five-second countdown until countermeasure flares and chaff decoys were deployed from ports at the rear of the plane’s fuselage, spreading over a 360-degree arc.

When the clock struck three seconds, a shrill cockpit alarm sounded. President Forster turned her head and screamed. Hot-metal fragments sliced through the small, round porthole window.

A heat-seeking Stinger missile had ripped through the C-17’s port-side outboard engine. Another had detonated a starboard-side, inboard engine’s turbine afterburner.

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Epilogue

Abu Mahmoud, at the helm, plowed the Seixal at top speed, about twenty knots, into Texas Gulf Oil’s liquefied natural gas processing station. The immediate impact caused a chain reaction of blasts that hit the company’s refineries, tank farms, crude-oil pumping stations and oil and LNG supertankers at dock. Resulting fires rapidly spread along the Houston Ship Channel. Hundreds of workers burned to death.

Black clouds of smoke rose high in the atmosphere and, with prevailing winds, spread over southeast Texas, northern Mexico, Louisiana, western Mississippi and the western reaches of the Gulf of Mexico.

Gatling guns on the Vila Real, Cantanhede and Tondela shot down two Coast Guard helicopter gunships and one Air Force Reserve gunship. Stinger missiles hit two Air Force Reserve F-4 Phantom fighter jets, which exploded over Galveston Bay.

Other Air Force fighter jets and helicopter gunships strafed and sank the fast-moving Omega boats. The three freighters blew up and sank when their engine rooms and fuel tanks were hit with barrages of cannon fire.

The cities of La Porte and Baytown sustained massive destruction from the petroleum-fueled firestorms. Cables supporting the Fred Hartman Bridge snapped under extreme heat; the bridge collapsed.

Sadiq Haqqani’s teams of Omega boats attacked the Saudi LNG terminals with sustained fire from machine guns, rocket launchers and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Crews on other Omega boats assailed tank farms, pumping stations, refineries, pipelines and tankers taking on liquefied natural gas. Gunfire from the boats started chain-reaction explosions.

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The Barreiro, Chavez and Coimbra steamed toward tanker ships taking on crude oil. Gatling guns on the ships fired randomly at numerous supertankers at dock. The three ships rammed into a huge pumping station, which erupted in a ball of fire on impact.

Crews on the USS Hue City, U.S. Navy patrol boats and helicopter gunships fast approaching the world’s largest petroleum facility witnessed from a distance bright, orange-yellow fireballs and then heard deafening blasts. Moments later they saw mile-high plumes of smoke.

Saudi Navy warships and helicopter gunships were unable to prevent the attack.

__________

Less than an hour after learning of President Lorraine Valerie Forster’s death in Iraq, the U.S. Senate confirmed U.S. Representative Constance Stowe of Illinois as Vice President. Minutes later she took the presidential oath of office. President Stowe immediately announced her choice for Vice President: U.S. Senator Brian Hughes of Oregon. Both Houses of Congress unanimously confirmed his nomination.

Then the new President told the nation, and the world, of the catastrophic attacks on the western hemisphere’s largest petroleum facilities along the Houston Ship Channel and Galveston Bay in Texas and on the world’s largest petroleum facility in Saudi Arabia.

“Both attacks, in Texas and in Saudi Arabia, appear to be the work of a shadowy Islamic terrorist group based in Afghanistan. It’s called the Jihadist Front. It is apparently led by one person, Abu Mahmoud Rahman. We believe he’s now in hiding either in Afghanistan, Pakistan or in one of the former Soviet Republics that has a large Muslim population. I have also heard reports he may have crossed into western China, but I doubt that.

“The attacks on both sites came from terrorists on board freighters that apparently left Karachi, Pakistan earlier this year. The CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies say they have no

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way of verifying where their crews came from or where the weaponry they carried and used in the attacks came from.

“U.S. Navy ships in the Persian Gulf had reported seeing three Spanish-flagged freighters enter the Gulf in early March. It is not clear as to whether those ships were involved in the attacks at Ras Tanura in Saudi Arabia.

“Witnesses to the attacks in Saudi Arabia say they saw three ships, unmarked and not flagged, drop off scores of small rubber boats carrying terrorists that attacked the Ras Tanura petroleum facility. The three mother ships apparently rammed into tanker ships and the pipeline operations at the facility. All this caused hundreds of deaths and immeasurable property damage.

“The attacks along the Houston Ship Channel also were horrendous. Reports of damage are still coming from local authorities and the U.S. Coast Guard. It appears all of the pumping stations, refineries, tank farms, liquefied natural gas operations, pipelines and tanker ships docked at numerous facilities were destroyed in a hellish conflagration. It could be years before operations there, if at all, can resume.

“Texas Gulf Oil has reported its operations in Galveston Bay and in the Houston Ship Channel were completely destroyed.

“The freighter ships involved in the terrorist attacks managed to avoid being stopped and inspected by the U.S. Coast Guard in the Gulf of Mexico and by the U.S. and Saudi navies in the Persian Gulf.

“I would like to tell the people of America we will go after the perpetrators. The Jihadist Front is believed to have only a few hundred followers in Afghanistan. At this point, all we know for sure is that the group’s Afghan-based leaders seem to have disappeared.

“This government will begin immediately monitoring world oil markets. It appears the price of oil will skyrocket worldwide. The people of this nation will have to be prepared for some tremendous changes in their lives because petroleum products will become rare commodities, literally overnight.

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“Therefore, I am urging Congress to pass immediate legislation to impose a national carbon tax on oil producers of between 20 percent and 30 percent. U.S.-based petroleum companies will have to keep gasoline pump prices low. Other legislation will have to be passed quickly by Congress to provide funding to help private companies ramp up the production and installation of photovoltaic stations, or solar panel farms, and wind turbine farms to supply power to this nation’s electrical grids.

“It appears now the attacks in Texas and Saudi Arabia have sent America and the world a loud-and-clear message: The exploitation of fossil fuels for the world’s energy needs is coming to an abrupt end.

“To the world’s petroleum companies, I hope you receive and heed this message.

“To the world’s vehicle manufacturers, now is the time to rapidly develop for popular consumption electric-powered automobiles and trucks. The time really is NOW for this to happen.

“In conclusion, I ask for the nation’s prayers in the coming days and months ahead. Thank you, and good night.”

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Memorial services for President Forster and members of her entourage, including Helen Brown, Janet Watson and Gabriella Nunez, were held on April 2, 2009 at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

President Constance Stowe and former President Jefferson Mark Wheeler led the eulogies. The service was televised live around the world.

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President Stowe fired Secretary of State Gordon Steinmetz and appointed former President Wheeler to the position. Republican U.S. Senator Thomas Jackson Young switched to the Independent Party and was named by President Stowe to be Secretary of Defense. The Senate quickly confirmed the Wheeler and Young appointments.

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The world’s economy suffered as oil prices shot up to more than $250 per barrel. Jobs were lost, businesses closed. In the United States, President Stowe ordered price controls for two years on gasoline, natural gas supplies and fuel oil. She and her Vice President were able to push through Congress legislation that provided for tax credits to invest in renewable energy sources. There was a loud outcry from several multinational petroleum producers and their distributors and oil exploration companies.

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U.S. troops left Iraq by July 1, 2009. By August, Abdul Mohammed Aziz and his forces allied with Iran took over the country. United Nations peacekeepers were forced out of Iraq.

In Afghanistan, after American and its allied forces left, the Jihadist Front took over the government in an alliance with the Taliban. The Taliban eliminated the country’s corrupt warlords and maintained Afghanistan’s No. 1 ranking for refining opium poppies into heroin.

The Guantanamo Bay Naval Base detention center closed on September 1, 2009. President Stowe ordered U.S. Marine and Navy personnel to leave the base before January 1, 2010. In July 2010 the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base was returned to Cuba.

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President Constance Stowe decided not to run for election in 2012 for health reasons. She long had battled diabetes. Her Vice President, Brian Hughes, easily defeated U.S. Senator Clyde Lawson of Kentucky.

Hughes appointed National Security Advisor Timothy Connors to be Secretary of State. He easily won confirmation. Secretary Connors successfully negotiated a peace deal between Israel and the new State of Palestine.

In 2016, Secretary Connors narrowly won election to be the new American President.

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