No time was wasted after US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld flew out of Iraq on September 14. The US 101st airborne division plunged swiftly into a series of operations against the nomadic Syrian-Saudi tribes roaming the border regions of Iraq and Syria. This week, a special assault team captured the Anaza tribal chief, Sheikh Ibrahim Hanjari, together with his deputies.
It was one of the most regionally sensitive and complex missions the US military has mounted in Iraq.
The Saudi royal family traces its origins to the highly esteemed Anaza tribes. By going after Hanjari, the United States risked touching off a guerrilla war across an area stretching from Syria to Saudi Arabia. Any US facility, soldier or citizen in the region could become fair game in a bid to free the sheikh.
On the other hand such abductions are already threatened. Holding the Hanjari party is intended to ward them off as well as impede the swelling incoming traffic of hostile aliens determined to fight the US presence.
Like every element of the Iraqi situation, the stakes are turning out to be much higher than supposed.
Until now, the Americans estimated the numbers of infiltrators entering Iraq through Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran in hundreds. They were stunned to discover in the last two or so weeks that they had underestimated the figures. Just the Saudi Wahhabists and al Qaeda combatants pouring into Iraq must be counted in many thousands. Since last month, US intelligence in Iraq has put together a list of 15,000 armed Saudis with military training – either planning to go to Iraq to join the anti-US guerrillas, on their way there or already arrived. As the names were gathered, they were forwarded to Riyadh with a request to detain potential guerrillas and terrorists or otherwise prevent them from reaching the Iraqi border.
The Saudi response, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Riyadh, was apathetic; not a finger has been raised thus far to impede the traffic.
In the tents of the Anaza tribal chiefs, soldiers of the 101st Airborne turned up large quantities of weapons, ammunition, landmines, rocket-propelled grenades and explosives. They were packed away, ready for shipment into Iraq. Also uncovered were several dozen Saudi suitcases crammed with millions of dollars. In one hideout alone, US troops turned up $1.6 million in $100 bills.
Eighty Saudi fighters, along with 48 armed Syrians, Yemenis, Egyptians, Pakistanis, Sudanese and Palestinians, were rounded up at a single tribal encampment. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism sources reveal that among them were the eight Al Qaeda men – mainly Syrians and Palestinians holding dual Saudi, Pakistani and American citizenship – who were erroneously described as “Westerners” earlier this week.
All the evidence, documents and mail discovered in the tribal encampment demonstrate that the Anaza tribes – from chiefs down to the lowliest Bedouin – provide sections of the main pipeline smuggling Arab and Al Qaeda fighters of various nationalities through Syria into Iraq.
US troops also came up with evidence that Syrian President Bashar Assad had not acted in good faith when he promised Washington that three Syrian divisions deployed along the Iraqi frontier were under orders to seal it against the infiltration of men and arms. The Syrian commanders had received opposite orders, to aid the efforts of Hanjani’s men to speed the passage of men and equipment into Iraq.
This is the same tribal route used by Saddam Hussein and his deputies to enter and leave Iraq at will.
All these discoveries – and the evidence turned up by 101st Airborne troops – have impelled Washington to renew its pressure on Syria to desist from its out-and-out support for the hostile traffic into Iraq. Harsh words issued this week from US officials.
John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control, and White House spokesman Scott McClellan both accused Syria of breaking its promises to stop the alien combatants and terrorists pouring into Iraq. They charged Damascus with promoting terrorism and warned it would suffer the consequences.
Acting on captured documents and the interrogations of captured tribesmen, the 101st Airborne quickly widened the range of their operations to the Iraqi city of Anah, which is situated on the banks of the Tigris River between the Syrian border city of Abu Kamal and the key Iraqi city of al Hadithah, near an important river dam.
The troops entered Anah, placed it under curfew and carried out house-to-house searches. They hit pay dirt. The town was being used by the Anaza tribes as their primary base and hideout for intruders. Anti-American gunmen and smuggled weapons were turned up in hiding places around the city, in the thick undergrowth lining both banks of the Tigris and in other places in the al-Qaim region. The operation is still under way and is destined to move south to al Hadithah.