LONDON -- According to one source it was called Operation Sphinx. It started when British millionaire businessman Roland W. (Tiny) Rowland got hold of a copy of a damning British government inquiry into the 1985 takeover of Harrods department store by his arch-rival, Mohamed Al Fayed. The government report was secret. Under Britain's Official Secrets Act, mere possession of it was a crime; publication could be punished by prison sentences. But for Tiny Rowland, it was just the latest opportunity in his obsessive struggle to overturn Al Fayed's takeover of Harrods. Using the Sunday newspaper he owns, The Observer, Rowland laid his plans with military precision: Last Tuesday, secretaries sworn to secrecy fed the entire 752-page report into the newspaper's computer. On Wednesday at 8 a.m., the paper's editor and six staffers arrived and worked 15 hours nonstop to produce a 16-page "special edition" containing a detailed synopsis of the secret report. On Wednesday night, at three printing plants miles away from London, 220,000 copies were printed. On Thursday morning they were delivered, free of charge, to newsstands all over Britain. The paper's "special edition" was of course banned by emergency court injunction some 20 minutes after it went on sale. But for Rowland, at a cost estimated at $50,000, Operation Sphinx was a success. Thursday evening, financial types could be seen eagerly passing around copies of the edition at pubs. Rowland has created Britain's most sought-after document since the notorious "Spycatcher" book. This is a feud that could not easily happen on Wall Street, where battles always seem to come down to money. This struggle is about glory, ego, vanity, vendetta, obsession, and perhaps most of all, entry to the coveted ranks of the British establishment. By one estimate, Rowland has already spent $14 million trying to expose Al Fayed as a "fraudster." At 71 years old, worth some $300 million, money scarcely matters to Rowland. Al Fayed's net worth is the most hotly debated number in Great Britain today, yet it is certainly in at least the eight-figure range. What both men want most is ownership of the world's most famous department store, the Queen's favorite grocery store, century-old landmark of Knightsbridge, Harrods. Born in Germany, Rowland came to England with his family in 1936. Broad-shouldered and 6-foot 2-inches tall, the British sense of humor naturally rechristened him "Tiny." With his family, he was interned on the Isle of Man during the World War II. After the war he went to southern Africa, where he made a fortune wheeling and dealing in metals and mines. He came back to Britain in the early 1970s as chief executive of an international conglomerate, Lonrho. His entrepreneurial style earned him a famous description as "the unacceptable face of capitalism" from then-prime minister Edward Heath. Rowland didn't mind the ostracism -- until Harrods. According to one account, Rowland won his first stake in Harrods' parent company, House of Fraser Holdings, on the gaming tables, wagering with Sir Hugh Fraser, then chairman by inheritance. From 1977 to 1985, Rowland tried to take over the group, which included some 100 department stores. Twice he was blocked by the British government, and on many other occasions subjected to unexplained delays. The British government has never said why he was blocked. In frustration, he sold his 29 percent stake in Fraser to Egyptian-born businessman Mohammed Al Fayed in 1984. It was widely assumed there was some sort of deal, or at least understanding, between the two friends and former colleagues. In March 1985, Al Fayed surprised Rowland by launching a $1 billion bid for the Fraser group. According to Rowland, he was notified by the government that he was no longer blocked from taking over Fraser precisely three hours after Al Fayed had 51 percent of the group's stock. From that moment until today, Rowland has waged an unceasing battle to prove that his former friend acquired the Fraser group by lying to the British government about his background and financial interests. According to Al Fayed, he come from a long line of cotton and shipping merchants, multiplied his inheritance into "several billion dollars" via construction, shipping, oil, and trade deals in Haiti, Dubai, and the Sultanate of Brunei, and bought Fraser for cash entirely with his own money. Rowland's version is racier: Al Fayed was born to a schoolteacher in an Egyptian slum, went to Haiti, which he left owing the Duvalier regime millions and with a death sentence hanging over his head, played a minor role as a Middle East middleman and -- crucially -- bought Fraser with borrowed money, probably from the Sultan of Brunei. Rowland has pursued his vendetta with ferocity: His tactics include incessant investigations by his newspaper and mass mailings to every member of Parliament of transcripts of bugged telephone calls between Al Fayed and his spiritual adviser, the Swami Shri Chandra, purportedly revealing Al Fayed's anti-Semitism. Al Fayed is a more low-key operator. He has devoted most of the past decade to buying his way into high society, notably with the purchase of the Paris Ritz hotel and the Duke of Windsor's former Paris home. Once married to the sister of billionaire arms merchant Adnan Khashoggi, and manager of the London business interests of the world's richest man the Sultan of Brunei, Al Fayed is not without resources. From a bomb-proof basement office across the street from his London penthouse, Al Fayed's top lawyer and private detective lead his anti-Rowland campaign. It includes packing Lonrho stockholder meetings with hostile questioners, sending embarrassing photos of Rowland anonymously to British newspapers, and spreading rumors that Rowland's health is failing. If accurate, The Observer's version of the government report is a resounding endorsement of virtually all of Rowland's accusations. In astonishingly harsh language, it labels Al Fayed's claims lies and untruths. It criticises virtually every one of Al Fayed's blue-chip advisers, especially his merchant bankers Kleinwort Benson, bankers Royal Bank of Scotland, and lawyer Herbert Smith. The Observer's version of the report accuses Al Fayed of subverting Britain's financial code of conduct -- based on trust and verbal promises -- simply by buying the services of blue-chip advisers who accepted his claims about his finances at face value. The alleged report could start a shift here towards a more legalistic, American-style form of financial regulation. So far, it still seems unlikely that Al Fayed will be forced to sell Harrods. The real sources of his wealth remain hidden behind the familiar maze of Swiss and Lichtenstein companies.