The flurry of events this week forced Washington and London to confront the fact that, fourteen months after the US-UK invasion of Iraq, the capture of Baghdad and overthrow of the Baath regime, some central goals of the war against Saddam Hussein are receding. Attempts to present certain moves and events as triumphs and part of the preordained scheme have fallen flat.
One case in point was America’s snap transfer of sovereignty to Iraq on Monday, June 28, two days early, which was depicted as a smart move to bamboozle insurgents preparing spectacular attacks for June 30.
Far from triumphant, fast-exiting US administrator Paul Bremer cut a lonely figure when he walked to his getaway flight at Baghdad International Airport accompanied only by the new Iraqi deputy prime minister, Salah Braham, a Kurd.
Neither was President George W. Bush‘s unceremonious departure from the NATO summit in bomb-hit Istanbul much of an image booster. He and First Lady Laura clambered into the cargo section of Air Force One instead of mounting the main ramp where they would have made a tempting target.
These scenes were not quite how Bush and his transatlantic ally, British prime minister Tony Blair, pictured their situation when, in defiance of a negative European front, they put their political careers on the line in Iraq.
The negative column of the Iraq balance sheet cannot be avoided in any stock-taking at this milestone of the Iraq venture, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s analysts will try and demonstrate.
The conflict in Iraq shows no sign of ending. Iraqi guerrilla forces and their imported Arab allies – mostly Syrians and Hizballah gunmen from Lebanon, al-Qaeda fighters and radical Iraqi Shiites – may rightly claim a tactical victory in the first round of their anti-US insurgency and boast the initiative at the onset of round two.
This they demonstrated Wednesday, June 30. No sooner had legal custody of Saddam Hussein and 11 former regime leaders passed from the United States to the new Iraqi government when guerrillas fired ten mortar rounds at the US base in the Baghdad airport hangar where the former Iraqi rulers are held. They waited for the Stars and Stripes to be furled at the facility and replaced by the Iraqi flag before hitting Saddam’s American custodians, injuring eleven.
Anti-coalition forces pinpointed this move to impress on the Iraqi public that it was they, not the new government, who was calling the shots in sovereign Iraq – even at the cost of harming Saddam Hussein who is incarcerated nearby. This underlined their main objective as being to chase the Americans, British and the rest of the coalition army out of Iraq – not to restore Saddam and his cronies to power.
Iraqi president Ghazi al-Yawar and prime minister Iyad Allawi answered back with their newly-acquired authority to restore the death penalty that Bremer had abolished. The guerrillas were thus informed that pressing ahead with their war or assassinating provisional government members would carry a price: the execution of Saddam or one of his eleven lieutenants.
However, no one is sure of the deterrent power of this threat against the strategic brains behind the bloody campaign of terror against the Americans or local Iraqi guerrilla chiefs fighting to expel the Americans, destabilize the new government and disrupt national reconstruction.
A hard look at the ratio of military forces on the ground shows that for the moment the guerrillas are short of the numbers for pushing Americans forces out of Iraq. But they have made serious inroads on the cities to a degree that was pooh-poohed only six months ago, in the euphoria after Saddam’s capture, by American commanders and war planners. None admitted that the insurgent militias, Sunni and Shiite together with al Qaeda, were capable of attaining control of large sections of Sunni Baghdad, Fallujah or Ramadi, or Shiite Baquba and Samarra.
But that is today’s reality. No-go zones are marked out in these towns to keep US troops out of harm’s way. Any military action there is carried out by aircraft or missiles.
As for the rebel Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr and his Mehdi Army militia, judged by strictly military criteria, it was not hard to smash his forces. However, despite suffering heavy battle losses in Karbala, Najaf and Kofa, his militia is reorganizing and replenishing its arsenal.
The handover of power to an Iraqi administration has had little effect on guerilla targeting.
Some of the new ministers have long featured on their hit list and a few more have been added.
Indeed the insurgents may find the going easier thanks to a number of Bremer-appointed members of the former transition government – particularly Shiites – having been passed over for office in the new administration. With nothing to lose, these rejects have turned coat and gone over to the insurgents carrying with them key intelligence information.
To win popular credibility, the new government brought the deposed dictator before an Iraqi judge on July 1, on the third day of Iraqi sovereignty. As seven preliminary charges were read out against him, he attacked the judge, demanded to be addressed as “president of Iraq,” refused to sign court documents, declared the proceedings illegal and demanded a lawyer. Iraq was fully entitled to invade Kuwait, he declared, calling Kuwaitis “dogs.” The court appearance he termed “theatre” staged by the real criminal, Bush, to win his election.
Indictments will be prepared in the coming months by investigative judges.
No live coverage was allowed and only a small group of correspondents admitted. A video record of the Saddam court appearance was released later without sound and the faces of court officials blanked out. Nonetheless, the impression was conveyed of a pugnacious, still-powerful personality. Presenting him alone, separate from his eleven minions, reinforced his aura as a still commanding figure.
If Allawi thought the deposed dictator was a broken man, he miscalculated. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Iraq experts estimate that the new Iraqi government will be ill served by Saddam’s combative appearance. In any case, its impact is likely to be overshadowed in the months leading up to the trial by spreading violence. Iraq’s diverse guerrilla forces will waste no time before launching combined terrorist attacks to broaden the terrain under their control.
They showed their mettle most recently on June 24 by launching simultaneous attacks in five Iraqi cities, in a single one of which, in the northern city of Mosul, they murdered more than 120 Iraqis and left some 500 wounded. US officials and al Qaeda operatives in Iraq quickly attributed the Mosul carnage to the Jordanian master terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, but our sources report the offensive was orchestrated by Iraqi guerrillas in conjunction with Osama bin Laden’s group as a dress rehearsal for bigger attacks planned for Transition Day in Iraq.
In the June 24 multi-casualty sweep, Iraqi guerrillas piloted a new command and control system for synchronizing a variety of large-scale terrorist operations in several places at once, such as car bomb blasts, suicide homicides and raids on key buildings, military camps, highways and the emergency services. A second strike will target the security forces and rescue teams racing to the scene of the terror disaster.
The dress rehearsal worked almost perfectly, marred only by the discovery by US forces of two car bombs in Baghdad before they blew up. The insurgents adapted quickly to the transfer of sovereignty being brought forward by two days. They simply rescheduled their terrorist attacks, demonstrating a high level of operational flexibility and logistical ease in moving terror cells around between cities and provinces.