A Digest of debkafile Round-the-Clock Exclusives in the Week Ending April 3, 2008

New UN Hariri investigator deviates widely from his predecessors


 


28 March: debkafile‘s intelligence sources comment: Canadian former prosecutor Daniel Bellemare, in assigning the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, to an anonymous “criminal network” of individuals, seems to deviate strongly from the ten previous reports made by his predecessors.


Both Detlev Mehlis of Germany and Serge Brammertz of Belgium uncovered and made public the strong leads they found to Syrian intelligence officers and their confederates in Lebanese intelligence as the hands behind the crime. Yet only a few months after taking over the probe, the new investigator has blanked out the evidence gathered in three years of investigations.


The release of his interim report, with no mention of Syria, the day before its president opens an Arab summit in Damascus on March 29, under a heavy cloud over its meddling in Lebanon’s ongoing political crisis, raises questions.


For Bashar Assad the Bellimare report is a heavensent gift. His propaganda machine will not doubt exploit it to the hilt as a clean bill of health. He may even demand an apology from those who pointed the finger of guilt at Damascus, like Tehran after the US National Intelligence Estimate cleared Iran of military nuclear activities after 2003.


At the same time, it must be stressed that the new UN report absolves no party of guilt for the assassination of Syria’s Lebanese foe three years ago. Security agencies, especially in the Middle East, have been known to employ criminal networks for “wet operatons” to cut out their links to the crime.


The new Hariri investigator has promised a progress report next month, which should be more instructive about the date of the international tribunal set up to try Hariri’s assassins and the witnesses he intends to call as chief prosecutor.


 


Damascus lines its borders with troops ahead of semi-boycotted Arab summit opening Saturday


 


28 March: debkafile: The Lebanon crisis and its divisive effect on the Arab world loom largest over the annual conference opening in the Syrian capital March 29. The Syrian hosts are anxious to divert attention from Lebanon by focusing on the Palestinian-Israeli issue and the violence in Gaza. Any resolutions will lack credibility given the many absentee high-profile Arab rulers.


 


Abbas’ virulent anti-Israel rhetoric in Damascus greets Rice’s arrival to promote peace mission


 


29 March: US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Tel Aviv Saturday night for a three-day push to breathe life into fading Israel-Palestinian peace negotiations.


At the Arab League summit in Damascus, Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of collective punishment against the Palestinian people and called on the Arabs and international community to help protect them.


Likud parliamentary leader Gideon Saar called his words a resounding slap on the face to prime minister Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak and President Peres who advocate concessions to the PA. He warned that unilateral concessions jeopardize Israel’s security and distance the prospect of peace.


 


Sadrist Basra militia ordered to defy call to lay down arms as US, UK intensify air bombardment


 


29 March: Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr Saturday, March 29, told his militiamen in Basra not to obey the order to lay down arms issued by the Iraqi government five days after launching a crackdown on militias after failing to dislodge them.


From a go-it-alone Iraqi venture on Tuesday, Maliki was reduced by Friday to calling on US and UK forces, for air strikes on militia targets in Basra Friday and Saturday.


Maliki has put his government on the line by his offensive against fellow Shiites.


In Baghdad, which is under a three-day curfew, Iraqi police reported US helicopter strikes in the Shiite Sadr City Friday night after a week of clashes and air strikes against the angry and restive Sadr City population. In the capital, too, 40 policemen, their faces covered, handed over their weapons to the Mehdi Army’s office in the Shiite district, saying they could not fight their brothers.


Saturday too, rockets were again lobbed at the Green Zone seat of government and the US embassy. No injuries were reported.


 


Israel says no to Rice demand for free Palestinian passage from Jenin to Mt. Hebron


 


30 March: This demand, according to debkafile‘s military sources, would amount to lifting Israeli restrictions on Palestinian travel from the northern West Bank terrorist stronghold of Jenin – all the way through Jerusalem’s outskirts to the southern West Bank Tarkumiyeh terminal, the Palestinian entry point from the Gaza Strip.


Israel’s top military commanders warned government leaders in the strongest possible terms that the US secretary’s demands if met would spell the end of their war on terror and expose Jerusalem and other Israeli cities to the waves of suicide killers their systematic efforts had been holding back. The checkpoints were a vital element of this effort. The Jenin-Tarkumiyeh route, they said, was already targeted by terrorists led by Hamas for two-way smuggling between Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Removing all existing controls would give them a direct link. The same applied to her second demand for free Palestinian travel between the West Bank and Gaza Strip.


Rice’s third demand was for Israel to let 12,000 Palestinian security officers train in Jordan for duty in all the West Bank’s towns. This is twenty times the number Israel proposed to allow.


After Israeli ministers objected to meeting Rice’s demands, Barak was authorized to offer to remove 50 dirt roadblocks, the checkpoint outside Jericho and repeat the offer to allow 600 security officers trained in Jordan to deploy in Jenin.


Rice responded skeptically that US General William Fraser would personally monitor the implementation of these steps.


The ultimate security responsibility for counter-terrorism, Barak stressed, would remain in Israeli hands.


 


Shiite cleric Sadr’s withdrew forces from Basra clashes after appeal from Iraqi government officials


 


31 March: Moqtada Sadr ordered his Mehdi Army militiamen off the streets of the Shiite cities on March 30. Shiite cleric Sadr demanded that the government stopped fighting the militias in Basra and grant his followers an amnesty. As Shiite-versus-Shiite strife spread to other cities in the south and Baghdad, the troops commanded by Iraq’s Shiite prime minister Nouri al-Maliki failed to dislodge the militias from their strongholds in Basra, Iraq’s third largest city and main oil port.


 


Rice plans Middle East summit starring Bush, but hedges it round with provisos


 


1 April: The plan for a May summit was first put to the US administration by two Egyptian ministers, Gen. Hussein Tantawi, defense and Gen. Omar Suleiman, intelligence during a secret visit to Washington last month. They proposed that President George W. Bush and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak lead a conference bringing Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian rulers together at the Sinai resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh next month.


The ifs and buts are formidable.


According to debkafile‘s sources, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert was told he must first make major concessions to the Palestinians and chalk up real progress in their peace talks, else the Egyptian president would opt out of the project.


Cairo was confronted with an even stiffer pre-condition by the Americans: Cleansing Sinai of terrorists, paramilitary gangs and smugglers.


Secretary Rice believes that if the Egyptians can pull off this unlikely task, Israel may be persuaded to go along with an Egyptian-brokered accommodation with Hamas for halting its rocket attacks.


 


Iraq‘s death toll of 1,082 was 50 percent higher March than February – boosted by hundreds killed in Basra


 


1 April: While most victims were civilians, a higher proportion of Iraqi combatants – 102 policemen and 54 soldiers – were killed. Some died in the six days of intense fighting in the southern oil town of Basra between government troops and militiamen; but many civilians were caught in the crossfire.


The fighting in the South appears to have abated since Moqtada Sadr ordered his Shiite Mehdi Army militiamen off the streets in return for a government amnesty.


 


Barak calls off German trip next week as Damascus raises war alarm


 


2 Apri: Israel’s security cabinet decided Wednesday, April 2, to redistribute bio/chemical warfare masks. debkafile‘s military sources disclose intelligence data indicating the possibility that Syria may transfer to Hizballah chemical or biological warheads known to have been developed for its war arsenal.


A few hours earlier, the London-based al Quds al-Arabi quoted Damascus officials as claiming that Israel is preparing a big attack on Syria and Hizballah. Syria was said to have ordered a partial call-up of its military reserves. debkafile reports too that Damascus has placed its missile units on the alert.


Our sources also note Syria plans to release the findings of its inquiry into the death of Hizballah leader Imad Mughniyeh in February. Sources close to Israel’s defense minister Ehud Barak report that this was the reason why he called off his trip to Germany.


Israel’s home defense command scheduled for April 6-10 a nationwide exercise to improve the home front’s readiness for emergencies.


That day, too, defense minister Ehud Barak’s toured Israel’s northern border and reported “a great deal of activity on the other side.”


In their briefing to the Knesset foreign affairs and security committee Tuesday morning, intelligence officers confirmed intense Hizballah activity, much of it in South Lebanon by operatives in civilian disguise.


On March 22, debkafile first revealed that Hizballah had more trebled its pre-war rocket arsenal.


“Some of the 40,000 rockets of Syrian and Iranian manufacture can hit Israeli targets as far south as Beersheba, 350 km. away. Not only has Tel Aviv come within range, but Hizballah and the Palestinian Hamas in Gaza can between them now cover most of Israel up to its southernmost tip at Eilat. The possibility is now under consideration that these rockets may be armed with Syrian non-conventional warheads.


Damascus has also shipped to Hizballah quantities of anti-air weapons, including shoulder-borne rockets and scores of Russian-made anti-aircraft ZSU-100 automatic 14.4 mm caliber cannon, which are most effective against low-flying aircraft, helicopters and drones.

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