A Digest of the Week’s Exclusives

— From debkafile‘s Special War Diary —

31 March – Day 12 of Iraq War: The US dawn air assault against a military convoy leaving Ash-Shatra north of Nasiryah Monday is believed by some sources to have killed Saddam’s cousin, Hasan Ali al-Majid and a nephew called Rakan. That strike diverted attention from the doings of the American 101st Airborne Division’s “screaming eagles”, fighting since Thursday night to drive a wedge between two Special Republican Guards divisions – Al Medina south of Karbala and Hamourabi south west of the Bahr a Milh Lake. Monday, March 31, they succeeded in breaking through Iraqi defense lines. Still engaged in street fighting in Hindiya, the first units are crossing the Euphrates from west to east, 60 miles south of Baghdad.

debkafile‘s military sources reveal that the Iraqis forced a gap in the river embankment to flood terrain in the path of the American forces advancing on the capital. They also report that a second gap was forced in the Tigris embankment north of Al Amara, to flood the route to be covered by American ground forces on their way from points south of Najef to the river crossing at al Kut.

If the 101st secures Hindiya today and is able to widen its bridgehead on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, it will have opened the road to the Iraqi capital to American columns.

This achievement will owe much to the tactical methods practiced by the 101st Division. Before the main force moves forward, it sends behind enemy lines a large number of small reconnaissance squads of no more than 5 to 10 men each. They spy out enemy tank, artillery, control and command positions, call up the division’s helicopters and, using laser and infra red instruments, guide them into attack. Only after enemy artillery and armor are wiped out does the main body move forward and storm the virtually defenseless enemy lines.

The battle for Hindiya is the war’s potential turning point. Saddam Hussein must decide whether or not he can set up a second line of defense on the western outskirts of the city to prevent the 101st from breaking through in two heads – one aiming for Saddam International Airport, the second for Al Falujjah northwest of Baghdad, to cut off the main expressway leading west out of Baghdad to the Jordanian capital of Amman.

This dual movement would amount to a siege of the northern and western outskirts of the capital. The Iraqi ruler will also have to decide whether to try and halt American troops by opening the floodgates between the great rivers or to resort without further ado to his weapons of mass destruction.

March 31-April 1 – Days 12-13 of Iraq War: The Iraq war is resolving itself into a battle of wits whose lines are deliberately blurred by the bravado, ambiguous maneuvers and half-truths propagated by both sides. The protagonists are US General Tommy Franks and Saddam Hussein. The score on Day 12 of the war is even. debkafile‘s intelligence sources and military analysts stress that both know the war will end in an American battlefield victory. With an eye on the endgame, the two are maneuvering over its cost.

Franks’ goal is a victory with the lowest number of American casualties, whereas Saddam, who has no inhibitions about the human cost to his army and people, seeks to extract from the conflict enough leverage to dictate the conditions for his and his sons’ survival.

Franks commands US military preponderance.

Saddam owns the chemical, biological and nuclear weaponry for making his defeat a black day of double-digit American war casualties and deadly fallout for Iraq’s neighbors, Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

This standoff decided General Franks on Day 12 of the war to decelerate the lightning movement of coalition columns towards Baghdad in favor of cautious progress, even at the price of creating the impression of a calculated pause in the advance.

Saddam, in contrast, after thrusting units of his Special Republican Guards into frontal clashes with the spearheads of the advancing American columns – while also resorting to suicide-killer and other terrorist tactics – suddenly on March 31 pulled his forces back to the Baghdad region, confronting Franks with three choices:

1. To dog the steps of the retreating Iraqi divisions.

2. To wait and see how far back the Iraqi forces move into the Baghdad region, the while keeping up heavy round-the-clock air attacks on the capital.

3. To deploy the “Screaming Eagles” of the 101st Airborne Division for surprise sorties against Iraqi formations.

debkafile‘s intelligence sources report that, Sunday, March 30, Iran’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei directed Iraqi Shiites not to rise up against Saddam Hussein or help the US-UK coalition topple his regime but wait to see who won then gather up the spoils.

Saddam, picking up fast on the Tehran-Shiite strategy, directed his spokesmen to start using Shiite terminology. The Iraqi officer who blew himself up to murder four American soldiers near Najef was posthumously renamed Al-Husayn Ben Ali after the son of the first Iraqi Shiite leader who lived in the Karbala region in the seventh century. This gesture was aimed at making the suicide bomber a martyr honored by the Shiites.

The price was paid on Sunday, March 30, when British forces launching Operation James in the Basra region were let down by the predominantly Shiite citizenry, for whom the Imam Ali is clearly a far more potent icon than 007.

March 30 saw additional pivotal developments in the war.

1. The coalition’s victory at the “huge terrorist facility” in northern Iraq was understandably played up by Gen. Franks and General Richard Myers, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. Truth to tell, the battle was pretty well decided in advance when, on Friday, March 28, Jamat al-Islamiyeh, one of the two Islamic terror groups ruling the extremist Kurdish enclave north of Halabje, announced its dispersal. The second group, Ansar al Islami, known for its links to al Qaeda and Iraqi military intelligence, was previously decimated by systematic US cruise missile bombardments.

2. Notwithstanding the redeployment of Iraqi forces outside the northern oil city of Kirkuk, the Kurds are for the moment keeping their promise to the Americans to stay out of the city and its oil fields. The Erdogan government has threatened a Turkish invasion of northern Iraq if any Kurds set foot in Kirkuk, even at the risk of a bloody clash with Kurdish fighters.

3. Syrian President Bashar Assad is toying with brinkmanship and may go too far. US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld followed by secretary of state Colin Powell warned him he would be responsible for its “choices and consequences”, after the Palestinian Jihad Islami Damascus-based leader, Shalah Ramadan, announced he had sent a brigade of suicide fighters from the Syrian capital to Baghdad.

Syria is therefore not only providing Saddam Hussein with his only corridor for importing war materials but also fighting strength. Iran may also find itself in American sights at some stage of the war.

4. Prime minister Ariel Sharon also persists in keeping Israelis in the dark and confused about the war in Iraq and its implications for the country. Sunday, he ordered officials and officers to stop voicing opinions on the subject. Foreign minister Silvan Shalom, before he left for Washington, was told to refrain from touching on the war or the “road map” in his talks with US officials. Some minister have taken to leaking fragments from the briefings they receive at closed cabinet sessions – usually out of context – leaving the public more at sea and misinformed than ever.

April 1-2 – Days 13-14 of Iraq War: American-led forces directly commandeered or placed under their guns three main highways leading out of Baghdad: the southward and eastern routes and the highway connecting Iraq to Syria.

This exercise effectively carved Iraq into three segments and tightened the noose encircling Baghdad, achieved by a two-headed American thrust eastward from a point east of Karbala across the Euphrates-Tigris plain north of al Kut, to take the Iraqi towns of An Numaniyah, Az Zubaydiyah and Al Iskandariyah. This maneuver netted the coalition forces three tactical gains:

1. The severance of the Baghdad-Najef and Baghdad-Karbalah Highways 9 and 10 through the capture of Al Iskandariyah.

2. Placing Expressway No. 8 that runs south from Baghdad along the eastern bank of the Tigris within US tank cannon and artillery range and trapping the Iraqi 4th Corps positioned between Al Amarah and al Kut with no access to Baghdad or a northward escape route. Concurrently, the Americans intensified their bombardment of the Iraqi 10th Armored Division, the fighting backbone of the 4th Corps.

3. Making the bridges of the three captured towns available for the American crossing of the Tigris from west to east, enabling two American forces to follow the course of the Tigris on both banks into the heart of the city from south to north.

With little fanfare, units of the US 101st Airborne Division are responsible for the third consecutive day of explosions and artillery fire heard in Baghdad from the west. debkafile‘s military sources report that this division has plugging away since last Thursday to cut Al Ramadi off from Falluja and seize control of Expressway No. 1 leading out of the capital to the western region. Units of the 101st are also making progress towards securing the giant air base at Habaniyah between the two towns. This facility is close enough to Baghdad – 90 km – to enable US bombers and helicopters to double or treble their round-the-clock strike rate against the capital.

Northern Front

Tuesday afternoon, April 1, US forces arrested their military momentum in northern Iraq in order to draw a line against the progress of Kurdish militias towards the oil cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, carried until now under American air and artillery cover. Letting the Kurds approach the oil fields did not seem to be the best way to advance the mission of US secretary of state Colin Powell who arrived in Ankara Tuesday night to obtain permission for US military reinforcements to access to northern Iraq through Turkey. The Americans have no more than 5,000 troops deployed in northern Iraq and no armored units.

debkafile‘s military sources reveal that, in a further attempt to prevent Iraqi missiles secreted in eastern Syria from reaching western Iraqi for launching against Israel, American special forces took control of the highway connecting Al Qaim in western Iraq to Abu Kamal in southeast Syria. At the same time, the main highway from Mosul to Syria via Sinjar was left open to traffic – possibly as a hint to Saddam Hussein and his sons that they still have the option of escaping to Syria and thus bring the war to an end.

2 April – Day 14 of Iraq War: Wednesday, April 2, the Saddam regime looked as though it had breathed its last. Its primary military props, the Special Republic Guards divisions, Saddam’s Fedayeen suicides and Iraqi intelligence’s special commando units, were clearly losing their grip as a functioning command in control of a coherent force of resistance. Iraqi elite units were letting key positions drop into the hands of the coalition forces already dangerously close to Baghdad, without lifting a finger. The SRG Baghdad Division did nothing to stop allied forces crossing the Tigris bridges from west to east although it was their job to blow them up and prevent the allied advance. Commanders were rumored to have been summarily fired; others disappeared.

During the day, debkafile‘s military sources describe a procession on Iraqi television of division and brigade commanders who assured the troops that all was well and the battle was going on. They looked tense and harassed. This unusual demonstration looked as though it was intended to betoken its participants’ loyalty to whoever is in charge in Baghdad, possibly a new ruling clique, or an attempt to draw attention to the men with whom the United States must discuss capitulation terms or deal with as the future leaders of the New Iraq.

The little hard information reaching debkafile‘s most reliable intelligence sources is that Saddam and his sons departed Baghdad some days ago. They do not know where he went, or in what state of health, whether he traveled abroad for medical treatment or the family headed for a safe berth prepared in advance, or even if they arrived safely at their destination.

But it is safe to say that Saddam and the senior members of his family are no longer at the helm of government. Iraq is undoubtedly in the process of regime change, the main objective of the Iraq War. Anything beyond that is hazy. The whole truth of the day’s events on April 2 may never be fully discovered. The war may come to an abrupt end, but not the Iraq crisis which promises more upheaval ahead.

3 April – Day 15 of Iraq War: debkafile‘s Exclusive Middle East sources have tracked down the top Iraqi leadership’s bolt-hole. It is a large 1,600-room luxury resort with 600 meters of private sandy beach in the Mediterranean coastal town of Latakiya, called Cote d’Azur De Cham Resort, prepaid and chartered in toto by Baghdad.

The group may include Saddam Hussein or his sons, but this is not confirmed.

The hotel is located close to the Assad family villa.

Top Iraqi officials are reported hiding there since March 23, four days after the US-led coalition invaded Iraq. They are guarded by a Syrian commando unit armed with anti-air missiles while Syrian naval missile boats secure the port.

debkafile‘s military sources also report: The Iraqi troops sent to reinforce Baghdad’s international airport are members of the Iraqi 26th Brigade’s special commando unit, whose sole task is to defend lives of Saddam Hussein and close family. These commandos take orders from no one but Iraqi ruler and sons, who are unlikely to have stripped themselves of this protection if they were still present in the capital. This outward movement from Baghdad is further indication of drastic changes in the Iraqi government’s top level.

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