Since the first week of July, the Bush administration has been immersed in a secret, high-wire diplomatic exercise aimed at bringing down the level of Iraqi insurgent attacks on US troops, or perhaps halting the violence altogether, by coming to terms with the enemy. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report exclusively that the initiative is being carried forward by a prominent non-Iraqi Arab figure as intermediary on behalf of the highest White House echelons. His identity is top secret for reasons of security. (DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s editors have his name but promised to preserve his anonymity in return for this exclusive).
All that can be said at this time is that the intermediary is not based in Iraq; he goes over for delicate negotiating sessions in the Bush administration’s name with Baath guerrilla leaders, militia commanders and heads of the great Sunni Muslim tribes and clans. At all times, he is in direct communication with the White House.
One of the key figures on the opposite side of the negotiating table, we can reveal, is former Major General Sufian Maher Hassan Tikrity of Saddam’s elite Special Republic Guards who was in charge of the defense of Baghdad in April 2003. This division – still under his command – provides the fighting core of the Sunni guerrilla insurgency against US forces and the American government.
The only three Americans in Iraq privy to this negotiating track are Robert Blackwill, the president’s senior adviser on Iraq, US ambassador John Negroponte who is not personally involved, and the commander of American forces in Iraq, General David Casey, who is in charge of security arrangements and any changes on the ground arising from progress in the talks.
The only two Iraqis kept informed are prime minister Iyad Allawi and deputy prime minister for security Salih Barham.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iraqi sources, the negotiations have reached a critical juncture with two major issues outstanding:
Will Saddam Hussein’s former Special Republican Guards, the core guerrilla units conducting combat against American forces at present, agree to being integrated in the new Iraqi army that Alawi and Barham are building?
(See article: Allawi Recruits Insurgents and Rebels in last DEBKA-Net-Weekly issue 165). Or are they holding out for a semi-autonomous status in the territory they control, subject only to the Iraqi general staff in Baghdad? The arrangement taking form at this stage is for a test period to assess what is acceptable to the rank and file of the former elite force, after which a last round of talks will take place to finalize their status.
The degree of political and economic autonomy to be conferred on the Sunni tribes and clan chiefs on their ancestral turf. In practice, this boils down to the size of the funds the Americans will need to advance to Allawi and Barham for distribution to pacify the Sunni leaders.
Separate bargaining tracks have been set up with the largest tribal groups and their supreme chiefs, on the assumption that once they come aboard, the small fry will fall in behind them and lay down arms.
The Americans have taken a number of key steps that reflect the progress made thus far.
First, the “capture” of Major General Sufian Hassan was announced.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources maintain that he turned himself in on the basis of understandings reached so far. The US military and CIA Iraq hands have a former acquaintance with the Iraqi officer. On April 9, 2003, after weeks of pre-war bargaining, he agreed to order the Guards units under his command to withdraw from the Tigris bridges they were defending and let the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force advance into the center of Baghdad without a battle. Earlier, he and US war commander, General Tommy Franks, had shaken hands on a deal for US troops to have a clear run into the capital in return for an American safe conduct allowing Special Republican Guard units to withdraw from Baghdad without being attacked from ground or air.
But Sufian Hassan felt badly let down when the Americans broke off contact with him at the end of the combat phase of the war, dashing his hopes of guarantees for the integrity of his units and pay packets for his men. When in May 2003, Paul Bremer‘s first action as new US administration was to ban all Baath members and Saddam’s troops, the former Iraqi general simply sent his men to fight American forces as guerrillas in the service of the discredited Baath party.
The Arab personality leading the fresh round of negotiations has persuaded the Iraqi ex-general to turn a new leaf in his relations with the Americans. After pretending to be captured, he has been lodged in a safe place near Baghdad under close American protection. A mutually trusted local Sunni visits him with updates on what is going on. When the talks reach a satisfactory point, he has agreed to send appropriate orders to his men in the field to de-escalate the combat. It is clear to all parties that progress will expose the ex-general to retaliation by any Baath hold-outs against accommodations with the Americans as well as al Qaeda. He will therefore remain in deep hiding until it is safe for him to surface.
American troops engaged this week in fierce combat in the flashpoint Sunni town of Ramadi with the urgent objective of eliminating a mixed bag of Sunni guerrillas who refuse to join any peace moves, Shiite extremists, al Qaeda and other radical groups. This pocket of resistance must clearly be destroyed before any peace accommodations can be put in place. Thursday, July 22, US military spokesmen reported 25 guerrillas killed in battle in Ramadi.
Second, the Americans have given the bargaining impetus by quietly permitting banks owned by affluent Sunni clans to reopen for business in Fallujah, Ramadi, Samarra and Tikrit, after being shut down ever since US troops entered Baghdad. This step is meant to signify the intention of fully integrating the Sunni Triangle’s business establishment in the Iraqi national economy and pledging Sunni businessmen a fair share of the burgeoning trade and money flow circulating in the country and entering from outside.
Third, as a confidence-building gesture towards the Sunni establishment, Washington asked King Abdullah II of Jordan to lift the 11-month ban and allow Saddam Hussein’s daughters Raghad and Rana and their children to leave Amman for Damascus. This week, the two women who are organizing and financing their father’s trial defense arrived in the Syrian capital to await senior Iraqi officials and learn about the arrangements promised and approved by the Americans for one or both to visit Saddam Hussein in jail. This would be the first time the ex-president is allowed any visitors at all outside Iraqi officialdom.
This concession was demanded by the high Arab personality mediating the negotiations at the insistence of Sunni leaders, who need to demonstrate to their followers the sincere good will of Washington in its negotiating stance and its having repudiated the boycott policy Bremer pursued against the Sunni Muslim community.
The prison visit will be conducted in secret but it will be deliberately leaked by Sunni leaders to bolster trust between the Americans, on the one hand, and the guerrilla forces and population, on the other.
Our sources in Washington report that the President Bush was directly involved in the decision to let Saddam’s daughters pay the prison visit.
Prime minister Allawi’s exploratory moves to placate the Baathist opposition ably complement President George W. Bush‘s diplomatic venture. His first foreign tour in office this week on visits to Arab capitals was designed to spread a broad Middle East carpet under the secret US-Sunni negotiations, which too go through the good offices of a regional Arab personage.
Allawi and Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari hammered home to their Arab hosts war-ravaged Iraq’s desperate need for security and the pre-eminent importance of eliminating all terrorist and armed groups plaguing the country and region. Allawi is focusing on driving a wedge between Iraq’s guerrillas and armed foreign interlopers, notably the fundamentalists of al Qaeda, who account for roughly one-third of insurgent combatants and are responsible for the terrorist savagery of car bomb massacres, abductions and beheadings.
The important Arab governments were not convinced to go all the way towards taking a stand against Islamic fundamentalist terror. None of Iraq’s neighbors would undertake to stop terrorists from sneaking into Iraq. The Iraqi government still faces obstacles in breaking through to consensual Middle East acceptance.
Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo Wednesday, July 21 agreed to condemn “all terrorist acts against civilians, governmental, humanitarian and religious institutions”, but declined to condemn acts against US or Iraqi security forces.