A Digest of the Week’s Exclusives
April 12: Drawing on its intelligence sources, debkafile lifts a few of the veils shrouding al Qaim, a remote corner of northwestern Iraq up against the Syrian border, suspected site of Saddam Hussein’s unconventional weapons, and the difficulties of its exploration. Aerial photos have revealed a cluster of long, hangar-like structures with large steel doors some 12-14 meters high and 15-20 meters wide, the size of sheds housing heavy fire trucks. Spy satellites and reconnaissance aircraft have picked up surface indications of the hidden presence of nuclear, chemical or biological materials. They have not ruled out al Hussein surface to surface missiles being held ready there to deliver unconventional warheads. Some of the Scuds fired against Israel in 1991 were launched here. Signs of chemical emissions have been detected in the deep canyons riddling the Al Qaim region, most of them concealed from overhead view by overhanging cliffs. More impenetrable hiding places are to be found along the Euphrates river banks, which are densely overgrown thanks to the rapids splashing down from the mountains.
Coalition forces have refrained from going straight in to Al Qaim to establish once and for all what weapons are hidden there for several reasons. Its installations are the most heavily guarded in Iraq by a brigade of especially trained, crack Special Republican Guards loyalists impervious to tempting coalition offers to surrender, preferring to defend the site with their lives – unlike the bulk of the Iraqi armed forces. Coalition limited air and ground assault, including even what is termed “unconventional warfare direct-action missions”, made little progress – at least until this weekend. The topography favors the defenders. The terrain is impassable for heavy tanks. The heavily overgrown Euphrates River banks provide cover and concealed routes for slipping across into Syria.
The Americans are not using their heavy air and missile power to hit the hangar-like structures until they know for sure what they contain. If what they suspect is true, an American bombardment could serve Saddam’s purpose even better than launching his own missiles. American bombs plus al Qaim’s variable wind currents could release dangerous substances into the air over American troop concentrations in Iraq, as well as Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and even Turkey, Lebanon and Syria, without Iraq having to send a single missile.
April 13: The first probes are out to grab footholds in any parts of Iraq that is not under firm American control.
Mosul: The Arab Shamar tribe that roams lands straddling eastern Syria and western Iraq moved substantial fighting forces into Mosul over the weekend ready to take on the local Kurdish militias. Unlike the second northern oil town of Kirkuk, where the population is largely a mixture of Kurds and Turkomen, Mosul’s inhabitants are Arab-Turkomen. An important factor in this equation is that Shamar tribal branches extend to Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the mother of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdelaziz is thought to have been a Shamar daughter.
debkafile‘s intelligence and military sources report that the tribal Arab elements entering Mosul are furnished with funds, logistical support, arms and foods by Syrian military intelligence – part of Damascus’s drive for a foothold in northern Iraq – possibly on behalf of the Iraq leaders who have taken refuge in Syria and plan and plan to fight a guerrilla war against the Americans. Mishan Jabbiri, a senior Syrian military intelligence liaison man with the Shamar tribal group, leads the thrust into Mosul together with one of Saddam Hussein’s former military intelligence chiefs Major General Wafiqal Samarrai who is based in Damascus.
Najef: The assassination last Thursday, April 10 of the young pro-American Shiite cleric, Abdul Majid al-Khoei, in the Shiite holy city of Najef was a serious setback for US planning. Recruited before the war at his exile in London, he landed with a militia of some 3000 to cement coalition control among Iraqi Shiites.
April 14: Round about noon on Sunday, April 13, US special forces sped to the Iraqi border exits to Syria to stem the flight of hundreds of Saddam’s henchmen from his last strongholds at Tikrit, Samarra and al Ramadi – a mission well nigh impossible, given the winding, porous 500-km frontier populated by Arab nomadic tribes who make their living by smuggling people, arms, oil and contraband back and forth. A few of the escapees were nabbed but most crossed to safety. Our sources quote witnesses who saw a long line of black armor-plated limousines with Iraqi number plates driving into Damascus’s Al Maze and other military airports in Syria, either collecting Iraqis flying in or delivering top Saddam officials to special flights leaving Syria.
The safe and assisted passage of thousands of Saddam’s top men into Syria evoked yet another stern warning from President George W. Bush in Washington Sunday, April 13. The Syrians must stop harboring Baathists and other wanted Iraqis. He leveled another grave charge against Damascus: “We believe there are chemical weapons in Syria,” he said.
The president’s denunciations topped the cautions issued by defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and secretary of state Colin Powell earlier in the day. Rumsfeld: “We found a lot of fighters from Syria, a lot got killed last night”. It will be recalled that debkafile was first to reveal that Syria had granted asylum to senior Iraqi officials and provided them with the facilities to conduct the war from outside Iraq.
According to a debkafile senior in the US administration, Assad, in addition to rescuing Saddam and his minions, is working with a will to de-legitimize the American war in Iraq and make sure it can never be justified by the discovery of unconventional weapons. In this clandestine operation he was almost certainly assisted by Russian and French intelligence services.
15 April: Although President George W. Bush and administration spokesmen have carefully skirted any explicit threat of military action against Syria, debkafile‘s military sources report that Sunday night, April 12, small teams of American undercover troops were already inside Syria marking out the hideouts of Saddam’s close family, his top lieutenants, military leaders and the directors of his banned weapons programs. US special forces troops were additionally directed to locate the men who drive the operational arms of the Hizballah, Jihad Islami and Hamas terror groups.
Syria faces imminent economic sanctions at best – although, since experience shows they never work, military action is very much on the cards. France stands to pay a diplomatic and financial price for certain actions that have come to light.
A. Documents found in Baghdad directly incriminate Syria as a full partner in the financing, development and concealment of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs – active enough in every stage of these programs to make them Iraqi-Syrian, not just Iraqi, undertakings. At the Security Council, Syria stance covered the biggest political, intelligence and military fraud perpetrated since the Cold War ended.
According to debkafile‘s Washington sources, in the last year, Syria test-fired missiles fitted with chemical warheads from Aleppo in the north to Djebel Druze in the south near the Syrian-Iraqi-Jordan border junction. Damascus carried out the test on behalf of the Iraqi-Syrian partnership.
B. A clause of the comprehensive military collaboration treaty Assad secretly concluded with the now deposed Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein – and first exposed in debkafile in September 2000 -bind Syria to furnish an escape hatch for fleeing Iraqi military, political, scientific and intelligence top echelons working on the banned weapons programs, as well as providing concealed locations for production to continue. Damascus was therefore committed to taking over the shared WMD projects from the point they were interrupted by a war emergency in Baghdad.
C. debkafile also reveals that, from Monday night, April 14, some Iraqi military and scientific leaders have been transferred from Syria to France.
Washington’s angry ultimatum to Assad brought hurried Arab intervention for some concession. Assad refused stubbornly.
16 April: Even after his conciliatory phone call to President George W. Bush, French President Jacques Chirac turns out to be saying one thing and doing another. According to debkafile‘s intelligence sources in the Persian Gulf, the French are pressing ahead with the anti-American front they are building it across the Arab world, through Iran and inside Iraq. As they spoke, Saddam’s foreign minister Naji Ali Sabri was on a plane bound for Paris – and he was not alone. The Iraqi nuclear scientist Jafer Jafer told his US captors that he too had been bound for Paris for promised political asylum, but he made the mistake of going through Jordan, where he was recognized and handed over to the Americans.
As the first meeting of Iraqi opposition and factional leaders with US officials took place near Nasiriyah, French diplomats and intelligence officers were in Tehran to persuade Mohamad Bakr Al Hakim, head of the Iran-backed Supreme Assembly for Islamic Revolution in Iraq – SAIRI, to instruct his followers in Baghdad, Najef, Karbala and Basra to help establish an anti-American coalition of forces in Iraq. Washington sent Kurdish PUK leader Jalal Talabani to Tehran to scotch the French plot in good time.
None of the suitors of Iraq’s Shiite majority can afford to lose.
For America, it would mean losing post-Saddam Iraq after winning the war against the Saddam regime.
For France, it would bankrupt its anti-war campaign against Washington and rob Paris of lucrative positions in the Muslim and Arab world.
For Iran, being done down in Iraq would cost it the religious, political and military primacy of the world Shiite movement. Najef would usurp the Iranian holy city of Qom as the Shiite’s spiritual capital and challenge Khomeini’s Islamic revolution.
For Syria, loss of influence in the Iraqi Shiite leadership would slacken its grip on Lebanon through the powerful Shiite terrorist group, the Hizballah and shake Assad’s presidency in Damascus.
April 17: Barzan Ibrahim Al-Tikriti, one of Saddam’s three half brothers, who was picked up by American forces Thursday, April 17 at his home in Tikrit north of Baghdad may disappoint those of his captors who believe he knows the whereabouts of Saddam’s fortune.
In the mid-1990s, Saddam removed control of his assets from his half-brother, having decided that no one in Iraq, including his nearest kin, would be privy to the most sensitive source of his power, his funding. The Iraqi ruler replaced him with a widely-distributed network of overseas foreign brokers, each with charge of a small part of his investments. He kept them all on a tight leash by threats.
The deposed ruler’s assets are now believed by debkafile‘s intelligence sources to be scattered around thousands of straw companies registered in Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as criminal tycoons in Belarus and Ukraine. Some investments may be located in Austria. There is no confirmation of reports that al Qaeda has accessed Saddam’s secret stash.
21 April: Sunday, April 20, Damascus surrendered a top official of the Saddam Hussein’s regime, one of the eight granted sanctuary (as listed by debkafile last Friday, April 18), Republican Guards secretary Kemal Mustafa al Tikriti, who is married to Saddam’s youngest daughter. The Syrians pushed him across the border to Iraq where he ‘surrendered” to US forces.
This was Syrian president Bashar Assad’s first response to the new US ultimatum: deliver Iraq’s WMD and regime leaders or face military action. President George W. Bush noted with satisfaction that Syria was beginning to “understand the message”. But, according to debkafile‘s Washington sources, the handover of all the high-ranking Iraqi fugitives sheltering in Syria will not satisfy the US government or get it off the Assad government’s back. The US ultimatum to Damascus consists of three demands, to be followed in the same order:
First, give up the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam has secretly hidden in Syria.
Second, return to Iraq all the officials of the Saddam regime granted asylum.
Last Friday, debkafile listed the top eight as being: former vice president Izzat Ibrahim Al-Douri, Saddam’s bureau chief Abd Hamoud, Baath party boss Aziz Salah, special security service chief Hanni Tefalah, Republican Guards Secretary Kemal Mustafa, Republican Guards Commander Seif A-Din Suleih, Iraqi Intelligence Commander Taher Jaloul and Special Republican Guards commander, Gen. Barzan Suleiman Tikriti.
Kemal Mustafa was handed over Sunday.
Third, disband the command structures of the Hizballah, Hamas, Jihad Islami and other Palestinian terrorist groups operating out of Lebanon and Damascus and give their leaders into American hands.
Another US ultimatum went to Yasser Arafat in Ramallah.
The day before, on Saturday, the penny dropped in Washington that the wrangling between Arafat and the first Palestinian prime minister designate Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) over the makeup of the new government was not as aimless as it looked. Arafat was keeping the heat up to distract attention from his next move, which was to be to dump the intransigent Abu Mazen in favor of his long-time pawn Nabil Shaath, to whom Abu Mazen had refused to award an influential post in his lineup. Arafat dispatched Shaath to Cairo where he normally resides to test the response in Hosni Murabak’s inner circle to his appointment. However, Washington struck fast on two tracks. A request went to the president’s office in Cairo not to receive the new Palestinian candidate; a stern US ultimatum was relayed to Arafat: Any more interference with Abu Mazen’s attempts to set up a Palestinian government will result not only in prolonging the international boycott of Arafat in person, but cause the scrapping of the Middle East road map promising the Palestinians a state.
22 April: debkafile‘s sources in Baghdad and Tehran report that the Iranians raised the military stakes by pouring thousands of Al Badr Brigades troops into Iraq on Sunday and Monday, in advance of the pilgrimage to Karbala and in breach of its understandings to Washington. One column of 3,000 men, heading south from Kurdistan, seized control of sections of the strategic town of Baqubah in the Diyala region only 50 km northeast of the Shiite al Azamiya and Saddam City districts of Baghdad. Baqubah also straddles the main Baghdad-Iran routes. A second Badr Brigades contingent of 3,000 to 4,000 crossed from Iran into Iraq near the southeastern town of Al Amarah and advanced into al Kut, where it split into three sub-units, one each for Nasiriyah, Najef and Karbala.
The troops in southern Iraq are in civilian clothes and drive civilian vehicles, much like armed militiamen, while in Baquba they sport Iranian Revolutionary Guards camouflage uniforms and move around in Iranian army vehicles. Tehran furthermore –
1. Pumped thousands of trained, well-armed guerrilla fighters through Basra and Al Amara into the Najef and Karbala regions to mingle with the pilgrims and manipulate the mood of the crowds from within.
2. The infiltrators delivered weapons, explosives and cash to pro-Iranian Iraqi leaders, arming them to fight pro-American or even moderate elements in the Shiite community.
3. Sent into Iraq the rabble-rousing Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, deputy head of the Supreme Assembly of the Iraqi Revolution, SAIRI, and brother of its leader, Ayatollah Muhammed Bakir al-Hakim, from Tehran where they live. He arrived with a group of fighters to stir into action the scores of clandestine anti-Saddam SAIRI cells believed to consist of between 1,500 and 2,500 militants.
Intelligence reports from the field point to Abdul Aziz al-Hakim’s men as having murdered Majid Khoei in the Najef mosque on April 10. The young, long-exiled Iraqi Shiite cleric had been designated as main American conduit to Iraq’s Shiite leaders.
The al-Hakim brothers are doubly dangerous to US plans for democratizing and stabilizing Iraq. In the first place, behind their political-religious front, they command substantial military strength. The second problem is the plausible formula the ayatollah preaches. He urges Iraq’s adoption of the parliamentary system of one-man, one-vote, without a sectarian agenda and the upholding by a future government of religious values rooted in Islam, while respecting the rights of all religious minorities.
On the face of it, what could be more democratic? However, since the Shiites account for some 60 percent of the Iraqi population, the election results are a foregone conclusion: the Shiites will take over government in Baghdad by perfectly democratic means, displacing the Sunnites who ruled under Saddam Hussein and setting up a pro-Iranian, anti-American administration.
24 April: Only one man is smiling in the group photo of Yasser Arafat, incoming Palestinian reform prime minister Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian intelligence chief Osman Suleiman, who brokered an accord on the makeup of the new government. That man is Arafat. The rest were grim.
In the current round of the Ramallah power struggle, Abu Mazen with massive international backing may have forced Arafat to accept former Gazan security chief Mohammed Dahlan as internal security minister, but in the process he has fallen back on home ground and Arafat has come up smiling. Uneasy over Dahlan’s empowerment, the Fatah leadership and Palestinian institutions which first granted majority backing to Abu Mazen’s premiership has reverted to support of Arafat. This gives him the power to have every policy decision by the first Palestinian prime minister (who also holds interior) and his internal security minister overturned by a majority vote. A binding though unwritten Palestinian law is the West Bank’s traditional refusal to accept a Gazan in authority. West Bankers are further upset by discovering Dahlan’s plan to appoint his henchman Bashir Nafa to head the resuscitated Palestinian preventive security services, saying he is not only unqualified for the job and a Gazan but also a “shady” character.
In any case, it is inconceivable that terrorist bodies subject to Arafat, the Tanzim, the al Aqsa Martyrs (Suicides) Brigades and Palestinian intelligence, will defer to the authority of Abu Mazen, Dahlan and their government. The Hamas, Jihad Islami and Damascus-based terrorist organizations will certainly have no time for the “reformists”.
It is therefore hard to understand the rejoicing in so many places over the Arafat-Abu Mazen “accord”, especially in Europe. While most accounts separate the jockeying for top Palestinian position from the relentless Palestinian campaign of terror against Israelis, it is worth mentioning that both emanate from the same address: Arafat’s government compound in Ramallah. This campaign, often running to 50-60 alerts per day, ties Israeli military forces down in constant counter-terror operations in Palestinian areas and keeps security forces on high alert month after month. debkafile‘s counter-terror sources reveal that while engaged in his one-upmanship game with Abu Mazen, Arafat sent a generous sum of money to the Nablus Al Aqsa Suicide Brigades branch with instructions to step up their suicide campaign inside Israel, either directly or through the suicide killers available from the Hamas and Jihad Islami. Thursday morning, a suicide bomber from the Nablus Al Aqsa Brigades blew himself up outside the Kfar Saba railway station, killing the security guard and injuring some 20 Israeli commuters.
Once Abu Mazen is installed and the road map to Palestinian statehood three years hence is released, President Arafat will carry on exactly as he has in the last four decades. He has no intention of abandoning the wholesale confrontation he launched in September and neither Abu Mazen nor Mohammed Dahlan will have the power to stop him.