A Digest of the Week’s Exclusives

5 June: Early Wednesday, June 5, a Palestinian terrorist drove a stolen vehicle from the West Bank into Israel, trailed the early Tel Aviv-Tiberias bus that was packed with commuters, mostly soldiers, drew up close and detonated the 100-kilo charge in his car behind the bus, as it passed Megiddo junction in northern Israel. The blast ignited the bus’s fuel tank, setting the entire vehicle ablaze. Of the 17 passengers killed, 13 were Israeli soldiers on their way to base. More than 50 were injured, some in surrounding vehicles. Firefighters had to control the flames before first-aid paramedics could reach the trapped victims. Police inspected the ambulances racing to the scene for hidden charges.

The attack took place the morning after CIA director George Tenet warned Yasser Arafat in Ramallah that if he did not put a stop to Palestinian terror and suicide killing, he would be left to face Israeli military might alone. The bomb-car is believed to have been rigged in the West Bank town of Jenin. Israel holds Arafat and Palestinian Authority responsible for strike.

8 June: DEBKAfile‘s sources in Washington and Jerusalem agree that the talks President George W. Bush is conducting with President Hosni Mubarak over the weekend at Camp David and his White House meeting next Monday, June 10, with Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, are no more than time fillers for Washington to gather itself for the main US offensive against Iraq.

CIA Director George Tenet, while on official business in Cairo, Jerusalem and Ramallah to reorganize Palestinian security forces for fighting terror, was secretly engaged on another mission: the setting up and training of a Kurdish military force to fight Saddam Hussein alongside the United States.

According to one report, he secretly visited to the northern Jordanian town of Anah, close to the Jordanian-Iraqi-Syrian frontier junction, to rendezvous with the commanders of the advance US Special Forces units and CIA combat contingents, who have been in Iraq under cover since mid-March, Kurdish leaders and officers of the Israeli force stationed in Jordan. According to another source, Tenet crossed the Euphrates into northern Iraq.

The Kurdish leaders he met, Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Masoud Barazani, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), are old foes who have come together to join the American military operation for unseating Saddam Hussein. Their price, according to DEBKAfile‘s intelligence sources, was a personal guarantee from the US president that America would exert all its military might to protect the Kurdish tribes of North Iraq against Iraqi military punishment before, during and after the US campaign, in the light of their woeful experience eight years ago. CIA forces who then tried to assemble a Kurdish army against Saddam were betrayed by Kurdish renegades, enabling Iraqi forces to wipe out the CIA training camps and bases in northern Iraq. President Bill Clinton ordered US intelligence officers to exit Iraq forthwith, leaving the Kurds to their fate. Iraqi tank columns massacred some three to four thousand Kurdish fighters, while several hundred escaped into Turkey, who handed them over to the Americans. Until recently, the Kurdish refugees in the US were denied any status; some were even indicted on charges of collaboration with Iraq.

Last week, on the recommendation of the CIA director, President Bush and other top US officials, including defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, received the two Kurdish chieftains.

DEBKAfile‘s military sources report Saddam Hussein has countered US moves by relocating around six elite divisions of his Republican guard in the north and west, unwillingly tipping his hand on the Iraqi defense plan against a potential US-Kurdish-Turkish offensive coming from the north. Dividing those divisions into two armies, the Iraqi command moved one out of Kirkuk and stationed it along the Lesser Zab River that washes down from the mountains dividing Iraq from Iran into the Tigris. The second army is disposed in western Iraq along the Tharthar Wadi, 90 km northwest of Baghdad.

These moves placed the Jordanian army in a state of battle preparedness along the Iraqi frontier and sent the Jordanian King Abdullah off to Jeddah on Wednesday, June 5 to petition the Saudi crown prince for support against Iraq. As these maneuvers advance, Yasser Arafat is expected to unleash as much terror as he can to back up Saddam’s military moves and impede American efforts to unseat him. He knows that if the Iraqi ruler is weakened or finished, the Arafat regime will go the same way.

9 June: According to DEBKAfile‘s intelligence sources, the new reforms Yasser Arafat instituted in his government this week are far from cosmetic. Two visitors last week joined a long line badgering him to overhaul his bloated, corrupt and terrorist-ridden government, Egyptian intelligence chief Genera Omar Suleiman, and CIA director George Tenet. They warned him that if he did not mend his ways, he would be even more isolated internationally than he is already. Arafat responded with a typical two-step.

He did indeed appoint a new, slimmed down cabinet, but he did so by “presidential decree” – not as a prerogative of the legislative council – thereby distancing his regime even further from democratic norms and strengthening his autocratic grip on government.

Even more importantly, he appointed retired General Abdel-Razzaq al-Yahya as key interior minister and head of the newly streamlined security force. The 73-year old retired army man is general depicted as a nonentity incapable of exercising authority over such powerful security and intelligence figures as Tawfiq Tirawi and Muhamad Dahlan’s underlings. However, DEBKAfile‘s intelligence and military sources tell a different story. Al-Yahya who lives permanently in Amman is very close to the heads of Iraqi military intelligence in Baghdad and hobnobs frequently with Iraqi agents based in the Jordanian capital.

In view of his pro-Baghdad inclinations, DEBKAfile‘s intelligence sources in Tel Aviv and Amman see no obstacle to the new interior minister working in close harness with Tawfiq Tirawi, Arafat’s most trusted West Bank security chief and commander of the Fatah’s al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades – particularly when Tirawi maintains a strong working relationship with Iraqi military intelligence agents operating in the West Bank.

Al-Yahya’s appointment will therefore strengthen the pro-Baghdad faction in the Palestinian leadership, which consisted until now of only one minister, Azzam al-Ahmad, who stays on as minister for public works. Al-Ahmad is in fact Arafat’s liaison man with Saddam Hussein and one of the few Palestinians whom the Iraqi ruler trusts implicitly. Significantly, too, Samir Rochah, head of the Arabian Struggle Front, a stooge of Iraqi military intelligence, has recently turned up in Arafat’s innermost circle, another signpost to the Palestinian Authority’s pro-Baghdad tilt under Arafat’s lead.

10 June: Washington staged an all-star performance to announce that an American member of the Islamist terror network al Qaeda had been had been arrested on May 8 on suspicion of plotting a “dirty bomb” attack in the Washington area. The name of the man in custody, Abdullah Muhajir also known as Jose Padilla, was first released by US attorney general John Ashcroft Monday, June 10, during a visit to Moscow.

Muhajir was known to Middle East counter-terror agencies, according to DEBKAfile‘s intelligence sources, and they report he also spent time in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip in 1999, studying explosives techniques with Hizballah and Palestinian bomb experts. Those sources point out that he is not the only al suspected Qaeda bombing plotter rounded up by US law enforcement authorities in recent months. More than 100 are thought to be in detention and undergoing interrogation.

DEBKAfile and DEBKA-Net-Weekly have since October 12, 2002 been reporting on various aspects of al Qaeda’s preparations for purchasing or building a dirty bomb or bombs for exploding inside the United States with the help of its cells in Spain, North Africa and Pakistan. International organized crime groups have been used as intermediaries for the purchase of radioactive substances. The intelligence sources we consulted estimated that the Islamist network may have acquired between 3 and 6 radioactive bombs for exploding in the United States and Israel. Some put as high as 50-70,000 the potential number of casualties if such a device were to be detonated in an American city like Washington.

DEBKAfile‘s intelligence sources say Muhajir was not a prime mover. His American passport made him useful for spying out the security measures employed at potential target sites in the United States. However, the Bush administration is under increasing pressure to show results in protecting America from terrorists, in the face of spreading public criticism of US intelligence and counter-terror agencies’ performance.

As to Ashcroft’s choice of Moscow as the venue for his disclosure, DEBKAfile notes that Bush during his visit to Moscow and St. Petersburg in late May faced Russian complaints that the US war against global terror had so far been disappointing.

11 June: President George W. Bush’s conversation with Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon on Monday, June 10, rounded off a series of White House consultations with Middle East leaders, starting with Saudi crown prince Abdullah and including Jordanian king Abdullah and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. A scarcely noticed omission was Syrian foreign minister Farouk Shara, who called off his planned trip to Washington – for very good reason.

Syria was the key issue on the Bush-Sharon agenda. The Palestinian issue figured no higher than third item down because of the broad consensus between the two leaders. The US president signed on to the Israeli prime minister’s proposition that Yasser Arafat’s administration has a long way to go towards reform before a possible Middle East summit can convene. According to the Bush statement in his joint appearance with Sharon before reporters, the conference is not there yet “because no one has confidence in the emerging Palestinian government.”

That disposed of, DEBKAfile‘s political sources in Washington report that Sharon gave the US president a detailed rundown of the Assad regime’s active backing of terror and its involvement in plans for mega-terror attacks in Israel.

He said that Damascus, seat of the most extreme Palestinian organizations and transit station for al Qaeda operatives moving around the Middle East, was building a powder keg under Israel and regional stability by its massive arming and support of the Lebanese Hizballah.

In view of the explosive terror build-up orchestrated from Damascus – and coordinated at the strategic level also with Yasser Arafat and Saddam Hussein – Sharon is quoted by DEBKAfile‘s political sources in Washington as advising Bush that a Middle East peace conference, like the one urged by the US State Department, would simply be the cue for a major flare-up on Israel’s northern frontier and/or a mega-terror attack to sabotage any peace efforts. The same applied to any serious consideration of the Saudi crown prince’s peace proposal.

According to DEBKAfile‘s military sources, Bush also conferred with Sharon on America’s military preparations for its campaign against Iraq, in particular, areas of overlapping interests, such as defending Jordan against Iraqi invasion or attack and US-Israel defenses against Iraqi chemical or biological attack on Israel or US military targets in the Middle East.

Tuesday, June 11, the Israeli prime minister zipped round Washington, touring Capitol Hill, meeting leaders of Congress and members of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. Monday and Tuesday, he called on Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condaleezza Rice and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. He also conferred with American Jewish leaders, before taking off for home via London for a brief encounter with Tony Blair.

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