A Digest of debkafile Round-the-Clock Exclusives in Week Ending October 8, 2004:

Chirac Places Hurdle on US Road to Fallujah


2 October: By Sunday, October 2, 5,000 US and Iraqi troops had broken the back of the insurgent stronghold in Samarra. In one of the biggest military operations since Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, they wrested control of the strategic town. The Samarra victory greatly improves the US military score in Iraq since the fall of Baghdad. Out of six major engagements in seven months, only one ended in a clear victory, the August 2004 campaign against radical Shiite Moqtada Sadr’s Mehdi Army in the Shiite cities of Najef, Kufa and Karbala south of Baghdad. The other six rounds of fighting were indecisive.

This trend of unfinished battles was set when President George W. Bush cut short the important April 2004 offensive to wrest Fallujah from the hands of insurgents and terrorists after US generals in Iraq warned him of the high cost in American and Iraqi lives.

At the same time, US military action is about to intensify in the wake of the declared US-Iraqi government vow to take over Iraq’s rebel-held points by the end of October. The final preparations brought General John Abizaid, Iraq war and global anti-terror campaign commander, to Baqouba last week on an unannounced visit and a decision to precede the battle for Fallujah by cutting the town off on two sides, from the Syrian border and Samarra.

On Thursday, September 30, an unforeseen hurdle was placed on the path of the next operation. A convoy of white Iraqi Nissen trucks was sighted northeast of Haditha heading towards the Syrian border. US warplanes on constant patrol for smugglers bombed the convoy, set some of the vehicles on fire and left six Iraqis dead.

Next day, Friday, October 1, Phillippe Evanno, aide to French parliamentarian Didier Julia, announced in Damascus that the convoy had been ferrying to Syria the two French journalists taken hostage in Iraq. They were to be freed in Damascus after being handed over by their abductors to a second Iraqi guerrilla group. There were two convoys – one escorting the hostages, the other French mediator Phillippe Brett.

The story behind this tale is revealed here by debkafile‘s counter-terror sources.

When Jacques Chirac was stumped in his diplomatic efforts to free the two journalists, turned away even by his Arab friends, he devised an operation that aimed at not only circumventing the US authorities in Baghdad, but torpedoing a potential Washington-Damascus rapprochement over joint military border action. A command center in the Syrian capital would negotiate their release through Syrian military intelligence and its ties with Iraqi Baath insurgents.

The ruse would have succeeded but for the US air strike against the convoys.


Prospect of Early Israeli Elections Weighs on Gaza Operation


5 October: Israel’s chief of staff Lt.-Gen Moshe Yaalon made it clear this week that the seven-day IDF offensive to eliminate the Qassam cross-border missile blitz against Israel may well last weeks. He added that even after it was over, Israeli incursions into northern Gaza to destroy missile launchers and their crews would be repeated as often as necessary.

Taken together, the two statements betray how little faith Israel’s top soldier has in the operation crushing the missile threat, whether because it is a mission impossible or because it will be foreshortened by political constraints.

The Palestinians will not halt their missile offensive against Sderot. A telephone conversation Monday, October 4, between Arafat and Hamas leader Khaled Mashel ended in complete agreement: there would be no backing down or letup in the missile offensive.

The Sharon and Barak governments, though formed by opposing parties, show striking similarities in the way they handle Arafat’s terror tactics. Labor’s Ehud Barak was pushed to the wall by an unending Palestinian barrage against the Jerusalem suburb of Gilo aimed day after day from Beit Jala and Bethlehem on the West Bank from late 2000 to early 2001. His ineffectiveness led to his downfall and a snap election that raised Ariel Sharon to office on a security-for-every-citizen ticket.

But now, Sharon and his defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, are showing comparable ineffectiveness in scotching the Qassam offensive harassing Sderot. Already, Israeli parties are beginning to gear up for a spring 2005 election.

Sharon is flapping about in the same terror trap as his predecessor.

Even though Barak, with President Bill Clinton’s backing, negotiated with Arafat under fire, and Sharon, with encouragement from George W. Bush, ostracizes him, yet both made the same error of counting on Egypt and the Europeans for a solution. But Egypt has lost interest in providing post-evacuation security in the Gaza Strip and the Europeans go their own way.

Arafat has never varied his responses and General Yaalon knows that the key to removing the Qassam shadow over Sderot is held by the Palestinian leader in Ramallah, who holds sway over Gaza, the terrorists, their missiles and weaponry and the tunnels through which they are replenished.

Both the Palestinian terror strategists and Israeli army chiefs accept that the Sharon government is constrained from going all the way to eradicate the missile threat by its shrinking power base and options, a state picked up on all sides of the political spectrum. Even Ehud Barak now scents an opening for a comeback.

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