A Digest of the Week’s Exclusives

16 February: Our exclusive intelligence and military sources disclose the latest key moves on both sides:

1. While polarized Security Council members continue to argue the pros and cons of America’s demand to disarm Saddam Hussein by force, US Marines and special forces, supported by British and Jordanian commandos, have moved into western Iraq.

2. Iraq neatly pre-empted Messrs Blix and ElBaradei’s teams’ hunt for weapons of mass production. Fearing those armaments would fall into American hands, Saddam shipped them out last month via Syria to Lebanon.

Syrian foreign minister Farouk a-Sharah naturally omitted mention of this small service his country performed for Iraq when he launched his broadside against the Americans and Israel at the Security Council on Friday, February 14.

Syria is not concerned by the fact that a major portion of Saddam’s prohibited substances, with their doomsday potential for hundreds of thousands of human beings, repose in a country in which central government control is at best feeble and in which at least three major terrorist groups, the Hizballah, radical Palestinian organizations and clusters of al Qaeda fighters, run loose. This dangerous nexus no doubt partially influenced the decision last week to place Washington, London, Jerusalem and Riyadh on high terror alert, since the possibility of these dangerous materials reaching al Qaeda cells outside Lebanon is not ruled out by counter-terror experts.

Abu Musaab Al Zarqawi, identified in US secretary of state Colin Powell’s February 5 demonstration to the Security Council of al Qaeda’s links with Baghdad, is not only the commander of the 170 al Qaeda fighters based mainly in the south Lebanese port of Sidon and formed into a brigade of the Iraqi Kurdish radical Ansar al Islam. He also officiates as supreme al Qaeda supervisor of the network’s stocks of unconventional weapons and their distribution world wide. Zarqawi uses Baghdad and Damascus as his transport hub to orchestrate the operations of cells around the Middle East, Western Europe and the Persian Gulf, with active assistance from Iraqi and Syrian military intelligence. The Syrian service is also a joint custodian of Iraq’s forbidden weapons caches in Lebanon.

The potential hazards inherent in this concatenation, pointing up the link between al Qaeda and Iraq, were not addressed by the Syrian foreign minister or the UN inspectors, nor the combined Iraqi-al Qaeda sabotage plan to synchronize the torching of Iraq-Saudi-Gulf oil resources with the onset of American military action against Iraq.

This threat, to which Mr. Blix and Dr. ElBaradei are oblivious, has brought forth direct action from the Bush administration in Washington, the US war command and its intelligence arms at home and abroad. When millions marched against war in hundreds of world cities Saturday, February 15, US military convoys were carrying American commando units into northern Iraq through the Turkish-Iraqi border crossing at Habur. They were on their way to deal with the threat to the oil fields.

A second clandestine crossing into northern Iraq was detected at the same time by DEBKAfile‘s counter-terror sources: Some 750 al Qaeda fighters, who landed in Syria in the last few weeks, were ordered to turn around and enter Iraqi Kurdistan, pick up weapons, ammo and medical kits, break up into knots of two or three and go to ground in scattered locations, using the radical Ansar al Islam enclave as a refuge. The men, composed of Iraqi and Saudi Afghan War veterans, Pakistani Taliban members and Sepah Sahabah Sunni extremists armed and backed from Tehran, were first interrogated by Syrian military intelligence in the presence of Hizballah security men. Their mission from al Qaeda command is to target American troops in Iraq.

17 February: The Israeli army has stepped up its drive against the Hamas and Jihad Islami in the Gaza Strip and Mt. Hebron in the southern West Bank. Less visibly, in the same arena, defense minister Shaul Mofaz and chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Moshe Yaalon are locked in a grim showdown with Syrian president Bashar Assad and Hizballah chairman Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, who have embarked on a devious plan to transform transform the Gaza Strip and southern West Bank into the southern offshoots of the Syrian-Lebanese northern front against Israel, before the Iraq war fully erupts. They would thus exploit the Palestinian terror campaign to drag Israel into a full-blown regional conflict, without exposing their own territory and power centers to reprisal – or even laying themselves open to be charged as aggressors.

According to DEBKAfile‘s military sources, Assad and Nasrallah are jerking the wires of Hamas and Jihad Islami groups in the Gaza Strip and Hebron, through those groups’ Damascus headquarters.

This contest lies behind the spiraling Israeli-Palestinian violence of recent weeks in these two regions as the US offensive against Iraq nears. To pre-empt the Syrian-Hizballah plan, the IDF can be expected to seize strategic parts of the Gaza Strip and its towns, in the same way as it has established a presence in most West Bank Palestinian towns, most recently Hebron.

Taking advantage of the diluted Iraqi military intelligence operation in the Palestinian arena – as a result of the rising pressure on Saddam Hussein and early stages of his regime’s disintegration – the Syrian-Hizballah duo has moved in to keep Palestinian terrorism rocketing. The momentum has swept up elements of the Fatah’s security organs, who interpret Yasser Arafat’s non-reaction as his blessing for their participation. Arafat’s operatives are attracted not only by the action, but by the influx of Syrian, Hizballah and Saudi funding into the Gaza Strip and Hebron region at a time when the Fatah war chest is empty.

In early January, Syria sent the Hamas by Jibril’s agents a consignment of large remote-controlled drones capable of flying over such barriers as the fence surrounding the Gaza Strip to deliver explosives and deadly chemical substances to Israeli locations. With Arafat’s approval, hundreds of toy remote-controlled planes and gliders were ordered from Europe. Under the guidance of Jibril’s experts, they were converted into instruments of terror and Hamas teams taught to load them with explosives or chemicals. On January 14, DEBKAfile reported this dangerous upgrade of the Palestinian armory.

The modus operandi is typical of the Syrian president. Behind a moderate, reasonable facade, he heaps military hardware and money on an incendiary situation, without getting caught or losing control of the consequences. Israel stamped hard on the Hamas Monday, February 17. Sunday, the Islamic group lost six top men when the drone they were assembling and loading with explosives blew up.

The Israeli showdown with Hamas and its patrons in Damascus and Lebanon is far from over and the Gaza-Hebron terror arc is still full of menace.

18 February: The muddle and uncertainty that have in the last three days confused perceptions surrounding the Iraq War in European and Middle East capitals are making way for some clarity. The pendulum can now be clearly seen to be veering towards “on” rather than “off”. It is also possible to discern which reports swirling around the airwaves were designed to mislead.

debkafile‘s military sources in Washington now maintain that, despite reports to the contrary, President George W. Bush has finally resolved to launch military action against Iraq on schedule. Here are some examples of reports that sowed uncertainty:

1. Because of logistical difficulties, the Americans have not yet attained the optimum level of troop strength for going to war at their jumping off bases. Our sources maintain that the strength present equals the allotted figure.

2. Turkey’s refusal to allow US troops bound for northern Iraq to cross its territory will delay the offensive. debkafile‘s Washington sources reveal that Washington presented Ankara with a 48-hour ultimatum to agree to terms for its participation in the conflict or count itself out, in which case the Americans will send their army into northern Iraq by another route. The US Treasury will also save itself a large sum in aid.

In any case, since the leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan are part of the US-led coalition, the US war command will only need enough troops to capture the northern Iraqi oil cities of Mosul and Kirkuk and surrounding oil fields – not the entire region. Those American columns can enter Iraq by way of Jordan.

3. As for the urgency of the US-UK second Security Council resolution, its only importance for the US president is as a means of drawing some of the sting from the anti-war backlash preying on such war allies as Tony Blair. Privately, Bush has washed his hands of the world body. When the time comes, he intends to settle scores with the UN as well as with Germany, France and Russia for behavior which he sees as leaving America in the lurch.

4. The negotiations for the formation of Israel’s next government led by Ariel Sharon are now mostly a charade. The Bush administration has taken a hand in the process to make sure Sharon ends up with a broad and stable coalition. That Labor leader Amram Mitzna, notwithstanding his vow not to serve in any government led by Sharon, has entered into negotiations to join the government the prime minister is forming is the result of having his arm twisted from Washington through Labor’s friends and supporters in the United States.

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