The turbulence overtaking Iraq this April took up much of the televised news conference President George W. Bush held at the White House on Tuesday, April 13. He admitted it had been a tough week but rejected the analogy with Vietnam as false and insisted that “a free Iraq” is vital to the defeat of violence and terror elsewhere.
(See attached map).
On the radical Shiite uprising, he said: Coalition forces face riots and attacks that are being incited by a radical cleric named al-Sadr. He has assembled some of his supporters into an illegal militia, and publicly supported the terrorist groups, Hamas and Hizballah. Al Sadr’s methods of violence and intimidation are widely repudiated by other Iraqi Shia. He’s been indicted by Iraqi authorities for the murder of a prominent Shia cleric.
At another point, Bush noted: In addition, members of the Governing Council are seeking to resolve the situation in the south. Al-Sadr must answer the charges against him and disband his illegal militia.
What the president omitted to tell the world was that Washington had made an urgent appeal to Tehran for help in quelling the radical Shiite uprising in Iraq and silencing the defiant Moqtada Sadr. The appeal was relayed through several channels – via the British representative in Baghdad, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, prime minister Tony Blair and foreign secretary Jack Straw, as well as by dispatching Shiite Governing Council member Ibrahim Jaffry to the Iranian capital.
This SOS was relayed to Tehran exactly ten days after US troops knocked on the door of the Iranian charge d’affaires in Baghdad Sadegui Ghomi and gave him one hour to pack his bags and drive himself across the border to Iran. The troops were acting on hard evidence reaching US intelligence that Ghomi, a veteran Revolutionary Guards officer, had been liaising between Tehran and Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia.
Ghomi was a familiar subject for US undercover agents from his lurid past as Iran’s facilitator in the 1980s for military and intelligence work with the Hizballah in Lebanon and his duties in the 1990s in conjunction with Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zuwahiri in Afghanistan.
US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on April 7: “We know the Iranians have been meddling and it’s unhelpful to have neighboring countries meddling in the affairs of Iraq.”
Monday, April 12, the day before the Bush news conference, the head of US Central Command Gen. John Abizaid said curtly: “Syria and Iran are involved in Iraq, and their involvement is not meant to assist the US-led coalition there.”
Nonetheless, that same night, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report from Washington and Tehran, the commander- in-chief in the White House performed an abrupt somersault and decided to turn to Iran for help. The Iranians could scarcely believe their good fortune. This was what they had been after when they put young Sadr up to his uprising. But they had not expected success to fall into their laps so soon.
In the ensuing exchange of messages between Washington and Tehran, neither side referred to Iran’s price for taking care of the Sadr imbroglio, but it was very clear in the minds of the two top Iranian clerics, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Hashem Rafsanjani, who took personal charge of the interchanges. They meant to achieve US acceptance of Iran’s weapons-capable nuclear program and the end of America’s drive against uranium enrichment processing.
Iran’s rulers are willing to consider only one limitation, to refrain from actually assembling a nuclear device after all its components are but a single step away from the final one. They want an end to international pressure and sanction threats and world recognition of their standing as a nuclear power on an equal footing with Israel, India and Pakistan. The rulers of the Islamic Republic regard this as a fair quid pro quo for pulling the Bush administration out of a hole in Iraq – albeit a hole dug by Iranian hands.
Before the appeal was relayed to Tehran, an estimate of Iran’s potential price and its nuclear ramifications were aired in White House discussions. Some of the president’s advisers favored letting the nuclear issue ride until the June International Atomic Energy Agency board meeting in Vienna and giving top priority to the spiraling American and Iraqi bloodshed before matters in Iraq get out of hand.
Tehran has thus won two months’ grace for its nuclear program by dint of the trouble it fomented in Iraq.
In response to the American request, a large Iranian delegation consequently set out for Baghdad Monday, headed by the deputy minister on Persian Gulf affairs, Hossein Sadeghi. However, in true Iranian style, the big delegation was according to our sources a decoy to distract attention from the key team of high Revolutionary Guards intelligence officers. They did not linger in Baghdad but proceeded under heavy US protection directly to Najef.
Tuesday night, April 13, at about the time Bush was holding forth in the White House, the Iranian officers began a marathon bargaining session with the four Grand Ayatollahs of Najef, led by Ali Sistani.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iranian sources report they are arguing the relative merits of two different proposals:
Sistani’s formula: The holy cities of Najef and Karbala and their satellite towns will form a new enclave ruled over by the four Grand Ayatollahs and closed to US and coalition forces. American troops will pull back from their present deployment on the environs of Najef and hand security and the preservation of order in the enclave over to armed militias 15,000-strong that are loyal to the Grand Ayatollahs. An “Ansar Karbala” has already been set up in that city.
The new force will drive Sadr’s fighting men off the streets of Shiite holy cities and partially disarm them. A place will be chosen for Sadr’s retirement with a close band of followers under conditions of virtual house arrest. The Four Ayatollahs will vouch for his safety and ascertain that he does not slip out and set up a new operation elsewhere in Iraq.
Tehran formula: The visiting Iranians would carry Sadr back with them to Tehran and keep him there for an unlimited period in the care of the Revolutionary Guards. After he departs Iraq, his Mehdi Army militia will be disbanded.
Both formulae have run into a hindrance. The family of the late Ayatollah Abdel Majid al-Khoei, son of a grand ayatollah and the rival whom Sadr has been indicted for murdering a year ago at Najef’s Imam Ali shrine, are intent on justice. They insist on his being arrested and tried on the warrant issued by the provisional Iraqi government.
Khoei’s assassination has been depicted simply as the murder of a pro-Western Shiite cleric. It was much more portentous. The young cleric was recruited by the Americans and British a year before the onset of the Iraq war; they helped him set up a Shiite militia of several thousand armed Khoei clan loyalists. This militia entered Iraq on the heels of the US-British invading forces as the main force tasked with taking over Shiite centers in southern Iraq and dropping an anchor there to solidify American control.
At their first stop in Basra, difficulties arose: militiamen began deserting or quarreling with local townsmen. The Americans pulled Khoei hastily out of the southern port city and relocated him in Najef, where too he found it hard to make an impact. Before long he was murdered in brutal fashion by Sadr’s militiamen on orders from Tehran.
Now, the Americans are hard pressed to resist the demand to get him tried and sentenced to death for murder, since the demand comes from the most powerful clan in the Shiite world, one that moreover controls its richest charity establishment. They know they must think twice before allowing the hotheaded Sadr to escape the wrath of the Khoeis.
Whatever formula is adopted, the young cleric has bowed to the authority of the Four Ayatollahs. The Iranians by pulling the rug from under his feet have effectively extinguished the Shiite uprising that erupted in southern Iraq and the Shiite suburbs of Baghdad on April 4.
However, the moderate Shiite leaders have laid down a condition that could presage a radical change in Iraq’s post-Saddam map. As read by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iraq and Iran analysts, the removal of coalition forces from a key Shiite enclave in Iraq to create a sort of Shiite Vatican is bound to be a precedent leading to the formation of additional autonomous enclaves governed by ethnic or religious groups outside US military control. A mechanism is thus put in place for dividing Iraq into self-ruling sectors whose forces will appropriate security authority from central government. This trend if it is allowed to advance would place in question the transfer of sovereignty to Iraq on June 30.
With the radical Shiite uprising disposed of, the US military command can give its full attention to the ferocious Sunni-Baathist insurgency, centering on Fallujah. Although moves for its suppression have been slowed by the presidential directive to hold down Iraqi civilian casualties, it is only a matter of time before the fighting elements are destroyed or surrender. The Sunni “corridor” running from Baquba in the east, through Fallujah and up to Ar Ramadi in the west has not been cleared of rebel forces, and Shiite-Sunni elements remain operational in the Turkeman belt running from the Tharthar and Habbaniya lakes to Tuz Khurmatu. They have not yet been dealt with. At the same time, there are no indications of any major Iraqi town preparing to join Fallujah’s revolt against the US presence.
If the military situation in Iraq is stabilized from now on and there are no fresh surprises, like the unexpected Sunni-radical Shiite collaboration last week or a fresh round of hostage-taking, President Bush and his advisers will strive to use the low-intensity combat level to move on with their timetable. The president has reiterated his determination to transfer sovereignty to Iraq on June 30. For late September or early October, depending on the temperatures in Iraq, the US command plans an Autumn Offensive to wipe out remaining Sunni resistance and bands of foreign fighters and also dispose of any local elements hindering America’s political and economic master plan for the country. Cities or urban districts hosting these elements will be taken over and insurgents pursued relentlessly.
This timeline has been set as the stage on which President Bush will rise above the US election campaign as the archetypal war leader. At the same time, the White House is fully aware that the same Iranian-Hizballah-al Qaeda axis which lit the current flame in Iraq may have more nasty surprises up its sleeve to wreck the president’s chances of re-election. This Bush’s advisers hope the projected Autumn Offensive will pre-empt. In any case it will go forward.