Washington’s decision not to appoint a defense minister to the new Iraq cabinet was no oversight. It stemmed from two reasons:
Chances are nil, now or in the foreseeable future, for the provisional government or any of the rival ethnic and religious factions in Iraq to put up an agreed candidate for the post.
Perhaps more importantly, there is no Iraqi army at the moment, so there is no pressing need to cross that bridge yet. But DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources report the US civil administration and military command in Iraq are rapidly reconstituting the Iraqi armed forces.
US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld half admitted as much when he said on his arrival for unscheduled visits to the Persian Gulf and Iraq Thursday morning, September 4: We are looking for ways of accelerating the process of bringing former members of Saddam Hussein’s military – and possibly his security services – into the Iraqi security services.
The defense secretary made it sound as though he was talking about police and security personnel. But he was really referring to combat-worthy army proper.
On the quiet, the US civil administration and military command in Iraq have been recruiting thousands of former Iraqi soldiers into the force, excluding only officers and enlisted men with political links to Saddam’s Baath party. In especial demand are officers and NCOs who served in special operations combat units.
Three mechanized Iraqi infantry divisions were initially envisaged; another two or three divisions have been added to the plan to meet the mounting guerrilla-terrorist assaults on American troops. In all, some 30,000 to 40,000 Iraqis will be put back in uniform.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources also report that 15 to 25 US officers will be attached to each division to supervise organization, training and the unit’s first ventures into operational activity. These US advisers will stay on with the Iraqi divisions as long as necessary.
A military source familiar with the recruitment process told our sources:
“These Iraqi soldiers folded away their uniforms only four months ago. Their weapons and armored vehicles are waiting, oiled and ready to go, in their old bases. All that’s left to do is to train them in the use of new US military-supplied communications networks and familiarize them with their new command structure.”
The recruits have been busy getting themselves equipped and settling into their new units. One Iraqi division is all set and ready to go into action.
For the Americans, the revival of Saddam’s army is a radical about-face. Only a short time ago, in mid-May, Paul Bremer when he took over as civil administrator in Baghdad, ordered the Iraqi army disbanded and Iraqi ex-soldiers disqualified to assume any security capacity.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources note that this policy had the adverse effect of pushing some former officers and enlisted men, finding themselves jobless, into the welcoming arms of Saddam’s loyalist guerrilla forces. The United States is striving for the impression that it is seeking through its approach to the United Nations to attract large-scale foreign forces to back up the US military effort in Iraq. However, Washington is at the same time focusing heavily on building up combat units composed of Iraqi fighting men.
The five to six Iraqi ground divisions of primarily Sunni Muslim soldiers are not the only military frameworks the Americans are fashioning in Iraq; they are also setting up an Iraqi Shiite militia.
Its nucleus sprang up, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources, immediately after the assassination on Friday, August 29 of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, who was a moderate leader much revered by Iraq’s teeming Shiite millions.
On the spot, the US military issued weapons to the bodyguards of the Shiite ayatollahs and local security contingents. They fanned out without delay to safeguard additional potential terrorist targets – clerics and shrines – against further violence. Their task acquired urgency when it was discovered that the car that blew up at the Imam Ali Mosque, killing up to 100 Shiites with the Ayatollah al-Hakim, was only one of four such bomb vehicles that had been infiltrated to the city several days earlier. Two of the three missing vehicles were quickly found and disarmed.
But meanwhile the Americans used the opportunity to expand this dedicated Shiite band into a militia in view of the paramount importance of effectively protecting from assassination moderate Shiite religious leaders, such as the most senior Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who are willing to co-exist with the United States.
The Americans are also concerned by the aggressive claim to the leadership of Iraqi Shiites posed by the youthful head of a faction that opposes the moderate clerics. Twenty-two year old Mugtada al-Sadr, who has been held responsible for the murder of the pro-American cleric Ali Khoei, runs his own militia, which is backed by Iranian agents. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources, US commanders in the Najef region have discovered that the young hothead secretly visited Tehran in the second half of June and was received by the hard-line spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Since his return, his tone is increasingly pugnacious and arrogant and the militia detail guarding his home has ballooned. United States authorities report that al-Sadr commands more armed men than all their moderate Shiite allies combined.
As of last weekend, American forces in Baghdad and Najef have been distributing weapons, ammunition, communications gear, unmarked vehicles, uniforms and cash to thousands of Shiite fighters and security personnel, who man their posts according to rosters set by the ayatollahs.
This Shiite force made its first public appearance as guards of the funeral procession that carried Hakim’s body round the country for three days up until its burial in Najef on Tuesday, September 2. Elements of the force also secured the Imam Ali Mosque and other Shiite shrines in Najef and nearby Karbala.
Last week, DEBKA-Net-Weekly revealed that Kurdish fighting units from Jalal Talabani’s PUK and Massoud Barzani’s PDK had been deployed in the Sunni Triangle that stretches from Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit to Baghdad to support US ground troops under constant guerrilla pressure in the region. While the bulk of the two militias – some 30,000 men – police jointly with American units the Kurdish regions centering on the oil cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, some 10,000 armed militiamen are now in the thick of the action further south, where Saddam’s loyalists are supported in their war against the US military by allied foreign Arab and Muslim fighters.
Elements of the newly-formed Iraqi mechanized divisions will soon be thrown into the fray. This injection will in the first stage boost pro-American fighting strength in the embattled Sunni Triangle to around 20,000 and down the road to between 30,000 and 40,000.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources do not have the exact figure for the Shiite militia in the making. It is thought to be starting out with at least 5,000 to 6,000 fighters, who will work alongside US forces and newly-arrived Polish-led multinational contingents holding the central-southern region that covers the most important Shiite cities.
US war planners never imagined Iraq would fall so soon into three regions manned by local Iraqi forces. But Saddam loyalists’ guerrilla campaign and the imported jihad has forced Washington to rethink its strategy.