The assassination of Lord Mountbatten and the ambush deaths hours later of 18 British soldiers just over the border in Northern Ireland came as no surprise to Peter McMullen, 32, one of the Provisional Irish Republican Army's (IRA) former top operatives.

In a series of exclusive interviews lasting for hours over a four-day period, McMullen laid bare the inner workings of the IRA, its weaknesses, strengths, new leadership, new alliances, strategies, goals and tactics. In many cases he revealed, literally, where the bodies are buried and who put them there.

McMullen is a man on the run, and has been since 1972, when he deserted his British paratroop regiment to join the IRA.

Now, perhaps, he is in the deepest trouble of his life, hiding in San Francisco, fighting a deportation order which is tantamount to a death sentence. McMullen knows what the man looks like who, he says he believes, the IRA has assigned to kill him. It was McMullen who got the hit man into America with a false passport last year. He also says he believes that British intelligence agents from MI6 (the British equivalent of the CIA) attempted to kill him in Arizona while he was still in the good graces of the IRA.

Here is the account of a man who for seven years was intimate with virtually every phase of the IRA from finances to bombing campaigns.

The execution of Mountbatten and the precision ambush of the soldiers reflect major changes in the IRA's leadership. These changes took place over a period of more than a year. Older, conservative leaders have been moved aside. More sophisticated, leftish leaders, such as Gerry Adams and Ivor Bell, have moved in and have been able to attract money, arms and training from the Palestine Liberation Organization and representatives of Libyan leader Col. Muammar Quaddafi.

Adams and Bell, along with Martin McGuiness and Brian Keenan, have regrouped the IRA into tighter cells to keep out informers. For the better part of last year, the IRA retrained and selected better recruits, and is better equipped and more capable than ever of carrying out quality operations, hitting quality targets such as Mountbatten, whose name said McMullen, had been mentioned at various IRA planning sessions.

"But one should understand that members of the royal family, even remote cousins, have always been targets. The big difference now is that the IRA has a much better chance of hitting them."

Rarely in the past, said McMullen, were the arms, money and intelligence available to attempt to assassinate such prime royal targets as Prince Charles, Princess Margaret, Princess Anne or even Lord Snowden, a commoner now divorced from Princess Margaret. Even as far back as 1972-1973, the IRA targeted for assassination a titled cousin of Queen Elizabeth. At that time, he was stationed as a captain in the Royal Scot Greys, an armored unit assigned to Armagh, Northern Ireland.

"But the Brits somehow got wind of the plan, and they pulled him out before he could be hit," McMullen said.

The IRA's new leadership under Adams, 31, is one of tight control, discipline and a compromise of sorts. He has put together a team that includes the likes of Seamus Twomey, a man in his 50s who is known for his uncompromising stance and reputation as a tough military leader.

Yet Adams, who is considered well-read but certainly not an intellectual, also has managed to bridge the gap between older, more conservative members of the Provisional IRA members and their breakaway cousins in the Official Wing, a Marxist group with violence-prone splinter cells.

Since Sean MacStiofain, 51, left the IRA's leadership five years ago after serving a prison term, the Provos went through a series of commanders, and chaos reigned. Units which formerly had to obtain permission from superiors to conduct operations took matters into their own hands, even at street-corner level.

The Provos were devastated in 1977 after information apparently provided by informers led to mass arrests.

Adams offered a solution: go back to the original IRA structure of strict control from above, thorough investigation of recruits, small, tight cells which make informing almost impossible and harsh discipline, including death sentences to those found guilty of informing.

His leadership spans many philosophies, and he will command the IRA as long as he is successful in maintaining the delicate balance between those who advocate a straight kill-the-Brits solution and those who favor political dialogue, according to McMullen. Adams, he says, also has been able to bring in fresh money, arms and morale.

McMullen, a stocky, muscular, 215-pounder with icy blue eyes, sandy hair and a mustache, says that a 26-year-old Arab woman living in Dublin is the liaison officer between the PLO and the IRA, and that a teacher from Donegal has traveled frequently to Libya to meet with one of Qaddafi's colonels for the shipment of arms and to arrange for loans to finance IRA operations, which he now estimates run to more than $5 million a year.

The ambush of Sir Richard Sykes, British ambassador to the Hague, who died in a fusilade of bullets fired by gunmen at close range last March, was a combined IRA-PLO operation, McMullen said, as was last week's bombing of an open-air stage in Brussels, where a British army band was preparing to give a concert. Although the bomb went off on time, injuring about 15, most of the band had stepped off stage to change into their red dress uniforms.

Under Adams' new policy of highly selective, quality targets and expansion of IRA operations, McMullen predicted attempts to bomb Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace, both in London, Balmoral Castle in Scotland, Windsor Castle and a royal family castle in Wales.

The British army in Germany also will become a prime target this year, as will military and industrial targets, such as power stations and fuel depots in Northern Ireland as well as on the British mainland, he said.

McMullen's career as soldier for the British army and later the IRA began in 1962, when he was 15.

From 1962 to 1968, McMullen served in several British reserve units much like the American National Guard or Army Reserve.

In 1968, McMullen fed up with the lack of opportunities in civilian life and with a wife and children to support, joined the regular British army, this time signing with the elite First Parachute Battalion. His training could not have been better for his future role as an IRA terrorist.

After basic training of six weeks, McMullen did six months of intensive training in such areas as explosives, interrogation, survival behind enemy lines, riot control, unarmed hand-to-hand combat and the use of a wide range of modern military weapons.

Most important, he received intensive training in urban and rural guerrilla warfare. At times he played the part of the guerrilla and at other times the part of the paratrooper seeking to destroy the guerrilla.

"That training took place in a whole mock town they've got set up in Wales. It was the best possible training for a terrorist," said McMullen, who was very proud of his training and his parachute battalion.

McMullen's battalion was ordered to Belfast in October 1969. He walked in two-man patrols along the Shankhill Road, a Protestant stronghold. On two occasions he got into minor fracases with citizens who asked about his religion.

"I told them I was Irish and Catholic. Why deny it? I had nothing to hide, and besides I was there to protect them as well as the Catholics."

McMullen's crisis of conscience began slowly, at first. He went to his superiors and told them he did not want to do foot patrols because of harassment from Protestants, and at the same time should trouble start, he did not want to be put in the position of shooting his or his wife's relatives.

He was transferred to the Army Catering Corps, but upon completion of training as a cook was sent back to his original unit, because, "once a Para, always a Para [paratrooper]."

In September 1970 he was stationed in married quarters at Palace Barracks outside Belfast, living with his wife, three children and with a fourth on the way.

McMullen was given the best possible job for his future role in the IRA. He was assigned as a chef in the officers' mess. There he picked up information on pending operations, but never, he insists, at this point passed anything along to anyone. No one, including members of his wife's family, who he knew by now belonged to the republic movement, had asked him for information or to join the IRA.

But a single bit of information was to help change his status. About 12 hours before the start of internment, McMullen heard of it and warned a brother-in-law. Despite the warning, several members of his wife's family were picked up by the army and held without charges in August 1971.

"At this point my own personal feelings began to change drastically. Up to now it was a bit of a strain between me and the wife. I was defending the army and she was defending her people. But, the army, sent in by the prime minister supposedly to keep peace and stop the murder of Catholics, now were going around arresting them and putting them in jail for nothing," he said.

Several days later he was contacted by two members of the Belfast Provisional IRA, Billy McCorry and Harry Fitzsimmons. The two introduced him to other members of the IRA and asked him about his political feelings.

"I told them that my prime concern was for my wife and children and not for the Paras or the Provos. Still, they asked me to come up with a plan to do something at Palace Barracks, and in the meantime to gather whatever intelligence I could. I told them I'd see what I could do," he said.

From that point on, McMullen was a member of the Provisional Wing of the Irish Republican Army. A few more incidents pushed him over the line from passive listener of officers' gossip into violent action.

"One night there was a party in the officers' mess. It was only about 50 feet from the interrogation center. The doctor was called out of the mess. He asked me to keep his dinner warm for him. A little while later, he comes back and says 'Gee, that's a tough guy they've got over there. They've split his head open, putting needles into his arms and fingers and scraping his bones and he still won't talk.' The doctor took his hot meal and joined the party."

The man being interrogated was Martin Meehan, a ranking officer in the IRA's 3rd Belfast Battalion.

Later, said McMullen, "The British army sealed off and searched homes in sections of the Catholic Falls Road for days, but didn't touch the Protestant Shankhill Road, where intelligence reports showed they had enough weapons to arm a battalion." At this time too, only Catholics were picked up, some 200 of them in custody without trial or sentence.

Day by day, McMullen said, he became more convinced that the IRA and not the British army offered the only protection for Catholics.

McMullen proposed a plan to the IRA in which he would bring in separately, 22 IRA members and hide them in his house in Palace Barracks. The force would then overpower eight guards and rob the barracks arsenal of 1,100 weapons, including machine guns, rocket launchers, automatic and semi-automatic rifles, handguns and mortars.

"The whole operation would have taken less than an hour. No one would have been hurt, because security was very lax in those days, and the IRA would have had a cache of weapons they sorely needed. We could have driven right out the gate with them in an army truck," he said.

The plan was the first of many frustrations that eventually led McMullen to leave the IRA in disgust.

The IRA discussed the plan for two months without making a decision. Meanwhile, in the officers' mess, McMullen came across an astonishing bit of information.

Officers talked about going into Derry for the big civil rights march on Sunday, Jan. 31, 1972. "Some of the officers talked about showing these bastards what it's like to face a Para."

He also noticed that several brigadier generals had suddenly joined the officers' mess, and their general conversation was about flushing out the IRA in Derry, forcing them into a confrontation on Sunday and dealing them a heavy blow. Later that day, in the sergeants' mess, McMullen heard a sergeant-major say, "We're going into Derry and these bastards are going to get their comeuppance."

McMullen immediately telephoned his IRA contacts and warned them that Sunday in Derry was going to be a bloodbath. He asked for a massive amount of explosives. He planned to blow up the Parachute Battalion's entire motor pool of about 200 vehicles, including armored cars.

He was to suffer two more frustrations. First, his IRA superiors could not believe that the British army would act violently, since the IRA said publicly that it would pull out of Derry so as not to taint the civil rights march. Next, instead of the hundreds of pounds of explosives he requested, McMullen was issued 70 pounds of gelignite and three timers, which came from German washing machines.

"Still, I thought I could cripple the motor pool so they couldn't get to Derry," he said.

He made three bombs in his kitchen, two 25-pounders and one 20-pounder. He placed two bombs under the gasoline tanks of trucks. The trucks were parked on an incline. He hoped the burning gasoline would run down and set off other trucks. He placed the other bomb against an empty officers barracks. This was at 9 p.m. on a Thursday night before the Sunday civil rights march.

McMullen set the bombs to go off at 10 p.m. He did not tell his wife about them. His wife and children were in his home at the barracks, but at a safe distance from the bombs.

"There was a big dance on the base that night," he recalled. "If I wanted to kill people I could have killed about 600. But I wanted instead to embarrass the British. To show them that their elite units could be hurt by the IRA," he said.

The bombs went off as scheduled. McMullen heard about them on the 11 p.m. news as he drove to a predetermined meeting place in Dundalk, just over the border in the Republic of Ireland. There he was greeted as a hero, toasted with champagne and taken down to Dublin to meet with the IRA's chief of staff, Sean MacStiofain. Again he warned his colleagues about Sunday.

"They still didn't grasp the significance of it, and I figured maybe they knew better than I, so all I could do was tell them and let it go at that. They partied for several days. Then came the news about the massacre of civil rights marchers. British paratroopers shot and killed 13 Catholic marchers. Another marcher died several days later on what quickly became known as Bloody Sunday," he said.

McMullen and several friends headed for Derry, but were arrested by Irish police before they could enter Northern Ireland. McMullen was armed with a .45 cal. pistol and had a 9 mm Luger in the car.

His career as a terrorist had just begun.

NEXT: Growing doubts.