A Digest of the Week’s Exclusives
10 August: America’s offensive against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq has begun as an exercise in gradualism rather than a D-Day drama. DEBKAfile‘s military sources report that tens of thousands of US, British, French, Netherlands, Australian troops may take part in the campaign, openly or covertly, but not in massive waves that fling themselves telegenically on Baghdad.
The fact of the matter is that American military concentrations are already unobtrusively present in northern and southern Iraq. The US campaign to oust Saddam is therefore unfolding, albeit in salami-fashion, slice by slice, under clouds of disinformation and diversionary ruses – like the latest statements by President George W. Bush (No date set yet for the offensive) and British premier Tony Blair (Plenty of time before the war begins), or the grave reservations issuing from the Russian, French and German leaders. The peasoup of deception is further thickened by utterances in the last 48 hours from Turkish prime minister Bulent Ecevit, King Abdullah of Jordan, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and the Saudi crown prince Abdullah. They warn Washington that attacking Iraq would be a terrible mistake, one which they want no part of.
In the past week, once those preparations were in place, the United States carried out two military operations:
1. Tuesday August 6, at 0800 hours Middle East time, US and British air bombers went into action and destroyed the Iraqi air command and control center at al-Nukhaib in the desert between Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
2. Two days later, on Wednesday night, August 8, Turkey executed its first major military assault inside Iraq, its commandos seizing the critical Bamerni airport in northern Iraq. This airport, just outside the Kurdish region, lies 50 miles north of the big Iraqi oil cities of the north, Kirkuk and Mosul. With the Turkish commandos was a group of US special forces officers and men. Bamerni airport was captured after a brief battle in which a unit of Iraqi armored defenders was destroyed, opening the airport for giant American and Turkish transports to deliver engineering units, heavy machinery and electronic support equipment, which were put to work at once on enlarging the field and widening its landing strips.
The American unit, reinforced, went on to capture two small Iraqi military airfields nearby.
The Turkish expeditionary force in northern Iraq now numbers some 5,000 men, in addition to Turkish air force contingents.
DEBKAfile‘s military experts explain that with Bamerni airport and the two additional airfields, the Americans have acquired full control of the skies over the two oil cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, as well as over the Syrian-Iraqi railroad, which they can now cut off by aerial bombardment. A prime strategic asset, this railroad is Saddam’s back door for taking delivery of his illegal overseas arms purchases, which are ferried from Syrian ports to Baghdad by the Syrian-Iraqi railway. On the return journey, the same railway carries illegal Iraqi oil exports, over and above the quantities allowed under UN sanctions, out to market. The Iraqi war effort and the Syrian treasury depend heavily on the revenues accruing from these smuggled oil sales.
The battle over this airfield was in fact the first important face-to-face engagement between a US-led invasion force and Iraqi troops. It was carried out seven hours before the Iraqi ruler delivered his televised speech to the nation, on the 14th anniversary of the bloody eight-year Iraq-Iran war. The sharpest alert to a threat to Iraq’s southern neighbors came not from military intelligence but from international oil dealers, who warned that Saddam Hussein if attacked may well decide to set fire to Saudi and Kuwaiti oil fields, sending oil prices skyrocketing above US$ 40 per barrel.
12 August: Saudi foreign minister Saud al Faisal’s disclosure to the Washington Post of Sunday – August 11, that Iran had expelled to Saudi Arabia 16 al Qaeda fighters – was Riyadh’s riposte for the damaging briefing presented recently by a Rand Corp analyst to a Pentagon advisory board. The briefing described Saudi Arabia as an enemy of the United States, charging the Saudis with being “active at every level of the terror chain from planners to financiers, from cadre to foot soldier, from ideologist to cheerleader.”
The Rand analyst, Laurent Murawiec, urged Washington to threaten to seize Saudi oil fields and overseas financial assets if the Saudis refused to desist from this activity.
Dismissing the briefing as “ridiculous”, the Saudi foreign minister rapped out some “facts”. In June, 2002, Iran expelled to Saudi Arabia 16 al Qaeda fighters who sought refuge after fleeing from Afghanistan – knowing that whatever intelligence was obtained from them in Saudi interrogation would be passed on to the United States for use in the war against terrorism. The al Qaeda group was delivered after Saudi officials led by a senior intelligence official traveled to Tehran in May.
Iran has not only cooperated with Saudi Arabia in the conflict with Afghanistan but cooperated extensively with the United States.
“The US and Iran can speak for themselves on how much cooperation happened between the two countries,” he said.
DEBKAfile‘s sources and experts expose some of the reality carefully left out of the Saudi foreign minister’s arguments.
Their central feature is the close analogy he draws between Saudi-US and Iranian-US cooperation in the fight against terrorism and his emphasis on its usefulness to Washington.
This analogy reflects a different kind of close cooperation that Saud has never admitted to the American public. It goes back six years. On June 25, 1996, a truck bomb devastated the Khobar Towers living quarters of US forces and their families, mostly pilots, who were posted in Dahran to protect Saudi oil fields. The blast killed 19 US servicemen and left 500 injured, some gravely.
DEBKAfile‘s intelligence and anti-terror sources have known for some time that Saudi intelligence had by the end of August, early September, found out exactly who was behind the attack: Iran – or rather Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who activated the Saudi al Qaeda bombers through two senior members of Khamenei’s private intelligence-cum-terror apparatus: the notorious Imad Mughniyeh, currently in south Lebanon in command of Hizballah and al Qaeda fighting forces, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Brigadier General Ahmed Sharifi.
In October 1996, soon after the Saudis caught on to the plot, the former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani landed in the kingdom on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Rafsanjani, now a leading adherent of the anti-US line in Tehran, took the opportunity then for arranging with the Saudis a lasting cover-up of Iran’s hand in the bombing disaster. A secret accord was signed by Rafsanjani and the same Saudi foreign minister, who claimed this week to the Washington Post that he was a fervent advocate of cooperation with Washington.
DEBKAfile presents the highlights of that clandestine pact for the first time:
a. Saudi Arabia will never communicate to a third party, notably the United States, any of its findings on the Khobar Towers investigation or any other information on Iran’s involvement in terrorist operations.
b. Iran in return undertakes to refrain from terrorist acts or incitement to terror in the Saudi kingdom, especially in the Shiite Eastern Provinces (where the Saudi oil fields are also located).
c. Iran and Saudi Arabia offer reciprocal safeguards for each other’s interests.
d. Iran promises to come to Saudi Arabia’s aid against an Iraqi attack; Saudi Arabia pledges assistance to Iran against an Iraqi or American attack.
In the six years since this pact was signed, both parties have scrupulously abided by its provisions.
In June 2001, five months before the September 11 attacks, Louis Freeh resigned as director of the FBI. One of his last acts was to draw up indictments against the 14 men suspected of committing the Dahran bombing – 13 Saudis and 1 Lebanese. Freeh complained that never in the course of his five-year investigation into the affair had he received Saudi cooperation, nor had American investigators been allowed to question or access the suspects.
The Khobar Towers bombing was a turning point in the progression of anti-American terrorism; it was the first large-scale attack to be carried out by a fledgling coalition binding al Qaeda, the Hizballah, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Iranian-Lebanese terror master Imad Mughniyeh. As one of their earliest joint ventures, the Dahran operation taught the partners-in-terror valuable lessons that were applied in subsequent major terror attacks against the United States.
That 13 of the 14 perpetrators were Saudi is no more fortuitous than that 15 of the 19 hijackers of September 11 were nationals of the oil kingdom.
The Saudi prince announced that the 16 men handed over by Iran would not be handed over to Washington or made available for American investigators’ questioning – even in the presence of Saudi security officers. Therefore, Prince Saud’s claims of five years of cooperation on the part of Riyadh and Tehran do not hold water. The episode of the 16 al Qaeda fighters is rather evidence that the Saud-Rafsanjani five-year cover-up is as robust as ever.