13 October: Saddam Hussein wasted no time before calling his leadership and parliament into emergency sessions Saturday, October 12, in response to the congressional endorsement US president George W. Bush gained for waging war on Iraq. DEBKAfile‘s Gulf sources report that the Iraqi ruler demanded a mandate to go to war and his son Uday named successor be named in case he comes to harm.
While these moves are essentially ritualistic, they point to the Iraqi government’s realization that the time has come for their country to gear up for military action. It will not immediately take the form of unconventional warfare against American forces in the field or other pro-American targets like Israel, Qatar, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. But a message is being broadcast that the time for using them is not far off.
The debate going back and forth in Washington last week over what kind of government will rule Iraq after Saddam Hussein is gone distracted attention from important military developments:
A. The US-Turkish special forces takeover of northern Iraq with the help of pro-American Kurdish and Turkmen units is complete. The stretch of territory now in US hands ranges from Sinjar near the Syrian border in the west and runs east as far as 10-15 miles north of the oil town of Mosul. Then, still further east, US-led forces have by-passed the friendly Kurdish stronghold of Erbil, which commands the highway to the second northern oil city of Kirkuk, to fetch up on a line roughly 20 miles south of Erbil, 35-40 miles north of Kirkuk.
B. In the west, a military standoff has developed along Iraq’s Jordanian border region, an area considered the strategic gateway to the Iraqi heartland – Saddam’s hometown Tikrit and Baghdad around the H-2 and H-3 bases, centers of command cores, air defense installations, missile bases and air force facilities.
C. In the south, the American war command continues to beef up its troop concentrations in bases ranging from Cairo-West, Jordan – mainly in the air-ground base of Ruwayshid near the Iraqi border, Eritrea and Djibouti in East Africa, the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, Socotra (Yemen), and Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain along the Gulf.
D. DEBKAfile‘s military sources report a slowdown in the US-UK air offensive against Iraq’s air and air defense resources. While air raids continue against Basra and Talil in the south and H-2 and H-3 in the west, Iraqi air command and control centers in the north near Kirkuk and at Taj in central Iraq have not been touched..
E. Most alarming are signs that the Islamic extremist al Qaeda is back in action and its initiation of a fresh wave of strategic terrorist strikes. The group’s two chiefs, who appeared to vanish off the face of the earth eleven months ago in the thick of the Tora Bora battle, began to surface in the first week of October and signal that they are very much alive and as threatening as ever.
From that moment on, the terror attacks have been coming thick and fast.
13 October: On the day of the Zawahri interview, October 6, the French oil supertanker Limburg was struck on its way into a Yemen port in an attack similar to the crippling of the USS Cole frigate two years earlier at Aden port. Responsibility was claimed by the Yemeni Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, an umbrella organization for pro-al Qaeda Yemeni extremists operating around Aden, in the Hadhramauth and in northern regions bordering on Saudi Arabia. Among them are 300 or 400 who fought the Americans in Afghanistan and made good their escape home through Iran. DEBKAfile‘s military sources report that, since early September, US special forces have been operating in Yemen to break up the terror networks the Afghanistan veterans have been building among Yemeni tribes. In recent weeks, clashes occurred in Hadhramauth and on both sides of the Yemen-Saudi frontier, between American commandos and high-ranking al Qaeda fighters.
The fact that the all-out American campaign against al Qaeda has not reduced the network’s ability to bring off a strike as meticulously planned and strategically damaging as the attack on the Limburg, means that the sea traffic passing through the region – tankers, US warships and aircraft carriers and commercial shipping, some of it carrying equipment and supplies to American forces in the Gulf of Aden – are vulnerable to terrorist attack.
Two day after the Limburg was struck, Kuwaiti terrorists fired on US Marines on joint maneuvers in Kuwait, killing one and injuring two. The oil emirate abutting Iraq is an important point of concentration for a US troop invasion of Iraq. Yet a large and high-placed al Qaeda cell, its members drawn from some of the emirate’s most prominent families, including even the Mufti of Kuwait’s Grand Mosque, struck under the noses of US and Kuwaiti intelligence
What is more, the American military buildup for war on Iraq has seemingly become the magnet of a resurgent al Qaeda campaign, begging such questions as:
1. Is the current wave of terror the product of joint pre-planning between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, Ayman Zawahri and the rest of the al Qaeda command?
2. What are the chances of the current wave of terrorism spreading to American targets in other parts of the world and America itself? This is to be expected in the near future.
3. Are other terror groups likely to join al Qaeda’s campaign of terror? The Palestinians and the Hizballah are likely to back up bin Laden by targeting Israel and Jordan.
Some of the difficulties now facing the US campaign to win over Saddam’s followers in the army are largely generated by Washington itself. Talk of replacing the Saddam regime with a new, democratic administration, is perceived by Iraq’s Sunnis, the backbone of the existing regime, as a threat to dilute the authority of central government, dissolve the army and secret services and fragment the country into autonomous Shiite, Kurdish and Turkmen sectors. However much many Sunni tribal leaders and generals may detest Saddam and his family, they find the Bush vision dismaying in that it will force them out of the privileged positions they enjoy, thanks to Baghdad’s repression of Iraq’s non-Sunni peoples.
Therefore, the road to a democratic Iraq – even assuming the war is quickly won – is bound to be uphill and tortuous.
13 October: The Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon’s visit to Washington on Monday, October 14, is officially described as being to coordinate the two countries’ actions in the coming war against Iraq. However, certain voices, some coming from the Israeli foreign ministry too, are trying hard to force Sharon’s talks in the White House into the frame of the What’s Next after Saddam debate in Washington. They advise him to settle for a deal on the Palestinian issue with President George W. Bush now, or else face much steeper demands after the war is over.
These voices come from the Israel circles who are anxious to preserve the Palestinian Authority, albeit after certain reforms. They echo voices in the US State Department who advocate building the future of Palestine on the existing Palestinian Authority. They do so in the same breath as they urge basing the future central government in Baghdad on incumbent institutions.
These groups of opinion are fully supported in Europe and the United Nations secretariat – but completely at odds with President Bush and Vice President Richard Cheney.
Five months ago, DEBKAfile began reporting on the vision the top Bush team entertains of a clean sweep of the current Palestinian leadership and its institutions and their replacement by new governing bodies untainted by terror and corruption.
Bush and Cheney feel the same way about Iraq.
Since Bush and Sharon are of one mind on the Palestinian question, their conversation will most probably focus on the coming war.
The ground they will need to cover will include American and Israeli military responses to chemical, biological or nuclear attack by Iraq or terrorists; the action to be taken in the event of American being subjected to a major terror attack like 9/11, and what will happen if Israel is attacked by Iraq or terrorists, whether al Qaeda, Hizballah or the Palestinians.
The two leaders will seek maximum military-strategic understanding and coordination in the face of these threats.
13 October: No group claimed responsibility for the two car bombs that turned the Indonesian island paradise of Bali into a fiery inferno Saturday, October 12, killing close to 200 and maiming many hundreds. But the hand of al Qaeda was hard to miss.
According to DEBKAfile‘s counter-terror sources, Osama Bin Laden’s own brother in law, Mohammed Khalifa, overall operations chief for al Qaeda in Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and other parts of South East Asia, engineered the Bali horror
Not only did the brutal massacre bear all the hallmarks of Osama bin Laden’s deadly network, it occurred on the second anniversary of the day that a suicide cell in a speedboat struck the USS Cole in Aden harbor, six days after a copycat strike against the French oil tanker Limburg off the Yemeni coast, four days after a US Marine was killed and another wounded in a shooting attack in Kuwait, and just about a week after the recorded voices of Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahri scattered dire threats over the Arab satellite TV station, Al Jazeera.
The time spread is too tight to be random; the geographical spread too broad for any but a far-flung network. The ability to strike where least expected is a recurring feature in Osama bin Laden’s blood-spattered record. But the Islamist movement’s affinity with Iraq is the common thread running through the al Qaeda terror offensive erupting this month.
The Indonesian government, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, has failed to stand up to the strong opposition to preventive arrests of suspected terrorists without irrefutable evidence. In the days of President Suharto, the Muslim right was at the forefront of the political opposition. Its leaders were imprisoned, to emerge after his resignation in 1998 as popular heroes. Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, who fled to Malaysia, returned home to found the Jemaah Islamiya, the JI, whose aim it is to set up an Islamic state in Indonesia. Inspired by Hasan al-Banna, founder of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, he preached jihad as the means to that end. Later, falling under the influence of al Qaeda, the JI went international. Malaysia and Singapore say it is the aim of Jemaah Islamiya, to set up an Islamic state in South East Asia covering Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and the southern Philippines. They accuse the Megawati government of being soft on the group because Ba’asyir has sympathizers in her government.
One of Ba’asyir’s closest associates, Abu Jibril aka Fihiruddin is believed to be the financial bagman for al Qaeda in the region. Another, Hambali, aka Nurjaman, described by Lee as Ba’asyir’s senior lieutenant, has been linked to a wave of bombings in Indonesia in December 2000 and attacks in Manila. Suspected of direct links with al Qaeda, his current whereabouts are unknown
The writing was on the wall for those who would read it. The government in Djakarta was warned by Washington that terrorist attacks were brewing. Australian Prime Minister John Howard declared the war on terror must go on with unrelenting vigor. He ordered an urgent security review. “People should get out of their minds that it can’t happen here; it can and it has happened to our own on our doorstep,” he said.
Ba’asyir does not hide his admiration for bin Laden, but denies any terror connections.
14 October: A shocked Indian prime minister, Behari Vajpayee, condemning the terrorist brutality perpetrated in the Indonesian resort island of Bali, urged the international community to end the practice of “conflicting views on terrorism.” Speaking in London, on Monday, October 13, the Indian leader denounced Western double standards. “The problem,” he said, “is that Western countries see their own terror better and do not see our terrorism as quite so serious.”
He pointed out that the free, fair elections he promised Kashmir and Jammu, had taken place, despite “militants trained, readied and armed by a neighboring country. They call it a freedom struggle, but who is fighting for freedom, for whom?’
The double standard Vajpayee picked up on his European tour is old hat for Israeli visitors. At the cabinet meeting in Jerusalem Sunday, October 13, Israel science and sports minister Matan Vilnai complained that during his recent visit to Paris he had encountered an anti-Israel tide prompted by its fight against Palestinian terror. Minister without portfolio Dan Meridor suffered a similar experience in London. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres defended his department’s information strategy. Israel’s unpopularity, he explained was the result of its counter-terror campaign in Palestinian areas. Is it necessary, he asked, for us blow up Palestinian houses every day? Couldn’t we do them all at once?
The foreign minister seemed to be saying that if Israel demolished, say, 100 terrorist homes all in one day, his colleagues’ visits to Europe would be a lot pleasanter.
Monday, October 14, defense minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer set off regardless for the French capital. He described his mission as being: to prevent the almost daily Hizballah cross-border attacks on northern Israel flaring out of hand. He intends asking the French government to restrain Syria and Lebanon and trusts the Chirac government to oblige with this favor.
The day Ben Eliezer landed in Paris, the French government announced a boycott on farm products produced by Israeli Jordan Rift Valley farmers – unless they are labeled Made in Palestine.
DEBKAfile suggests a change of course. Instead of bidding for sympathy and support where it is denied – the views of French president Jacques Chirac on Israel vis a vis the Palestinians will not change in the near future – why don’t they go east, to New Delhi, for instance. Behari Vajpayee leads a not inconsiderable nation with whom Israel has much in common. He might even give them some constructive advice on how to deal with the Hizballah.