12 July: The US troop withdrawal from the Iraqi town of Falluja only 50 km west of Baghdad on Friday, July 1, is the first major American military retreat since going to war against Iraq on March 18, 2003. It comes amid spiraling attacks on US troops by “unidentified” snipers and ambushers and follows what sounds like the voice of Saddam Hussein announcing his return to Iraq on two audio-tapes and calling Iraqis out to fight the Americans.
While American sources present the pullback as limited to Falluja police station, debkafile‘s military sources report it is more extensive. In effect, US Falluja unit is in the process of redeploying outside the town. This is one surface symptom, but not the only one, that American forces and elements loyal to Saddam Hussein are building up to a significant military clash. Territorial positions are taking shape.
Saturday, the US administration was working hard to launch a 25-member governing council for its first meeting on Sunday, July 13, the first Iraqi executive body in government in Baghdad since the overthrow of the Baath regime. Representatives of Iraq’s main seven political groups and independents will be tasked with writing a constitution and organizing elections.
debkafile‘s analysts suggest that the US initiative to start handing over power to Iraqis may have come too late now that the deposed ruler appears to be setting up a military presence in the heart of the country. Some of the newly appointed counselors, while cooperating with the Americans, may also in secret be taking care to cover their backs – just in case Saddam Hussein ever comes back.
14 July: Monday, July 14, American forces in Iraq suffered their 32nd death since May 1 when a military convoy was assaulted with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns while patrolling the Mansour district of Baghdad. Another six troops were injured. The attack took place on the anniversary of the 1958 overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy, one of the anniversaries the new Iraqi governing council abolished at its inaugural meeting the day before. To pre-empt the expected “anniversary campaign” against its troops, the American army launched Operation Ivy Serpent focusing on the triangle north and west of Baghdad, from which most of the deadly attacks emanate. Secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld said frankly Sunday, July 13, that he did not expect the summer to be peaceful for US forces in Iraq and did not rule out consigning reinforcements “as needed”.
Most experts agree that Washington’s current state of indecision is the worst possible course. The uncertainty also has a detrimental effect on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the prospects of dragging it out of stalemate. Syrian president Bashar Assad and Hizballah chairman Haasan Nasrallah are heavily invested in both conflicts. So too is Yasser Arafat, who is matching his steps with Saddam Hussein and waiting for the outcome of the coming round of warfare in Iraq. Any gains by the deposed Iraqi ruler will encourage Arafat to further wreck the slim chances of progress in the exchanges between Mahmoud Abbas and Israel.
As it is, terrorist groups on the West Bank and Gaza Strip do not bother to hide their preparations to revive their suicide assaults immediately after the agreed ceasefire ends in two months. Hamas is undeterred by the roundup of 20 operatives out of thousands in a timid operation by Abbas’ internal security minister Mohammed Dahlan. In Ramallah, Arafat’s terrorist masterminds have been busy too. His allies in the southern Gaza Strip are smuggling in a fresh supply of weapons and explosives from Egypt while keeping up the level of shootings and bombings. IDF forces are constrained by adjusted rules of engagement from destroying the smuggling tunnels, as well as going after West Bank terrorist gangs. Thus, the general level of attacks may have dropped, but the situation is far from being a truce. In the last two weeks, gunmen have sniped at Israeli road workers, a suicide attack was carried out in Yabets village inside Israel, a taxi driver was taken hostage by Arafat’s Fatah and an Irish bomb expert imported to improve the performance of Arafat’s bombers so that he can escalate his campaign to mega-attacks in Israeli cities.
15 July: The truce declared by Palestinian terrorist organizations on June 29 was initially held up by prime minister Mahmoud Abbas and his internal security minister Mohammed Dahlan as evidence that persuasion could work better than confrontation to disarm the terrorists. They asked for a three-week grace period – which was granted and massive releases of Palestinian terrorists in Israeli jails – which was not.
More than two weeks have been used up of that period and the two Palestinian leaders have done nothing to strip the terrorist groups of their weapons in the areas turned over to their responsibility, the Gaza Strip and Bethlehem. In the 15 days of ceasefire from June 29 to July 14, 10 Israelis were murdered by Palestinian terrorists and the level of attacks on Israeli targets remains high in the southern Gaza Strip. Gazan Palestinian groups are using their freedom of movement to step up their members’ missile-launching, mortar shelling and bomb-making aptitudes. The talks on further Israeli troop withdrawals from Palestinian West Bank towns are therefore stalled, throwing the US-backed peace initiative launched at the June 4 Aqaba summit called by President George W, Bush into near-stalemate.
The case of the kidnapped Israeli taxi-driver, Eliahu Gorel, 61, from Ramat Gan demonstrated the risks of handing terrorist-ridden cities over to Palestinian security responsibility. Snatched by five Palestinians at knifepoint last Friday, July 11, he was discovered by his rescuers four days later in a pit underneath a derelict house in the Betuniya suburb of the Ramallah which is the seat of Palestinian government. In their offices a stone’s throw away from the pit, Abu Mazen and Dahlan promised Israeli defense minister Shaul Mofaz to help obtain his recovery, but did not raise a finger.
After it was over, OC Central Command, Maj. Gen Moshe Kaplinsky said: “I want to stress that contrary to all reports, the Palestinian Authority played no role whatsoever in the rescue. We received no relevant information from Palestinian authority that helped locate missing man.
At the same time, “members of the Israeli prime minister’s party” in Norway leaked a telling piece of information. At a top level conference of security officials called before his departure for London and Oslo, Sharon gave the order to launch an “independent operation” to free the taxi driver without appealing to the Palestinians.
Most strikingly, Palestinian terrorists have since the “truce” went into effect taken to killing Israelis in ones, instead of in large-scale multi-casualty operations. Some have also gone back to using the knife, a favorite weapon of the pre-bomb-belt era of Palestinian terror. First intimation of this switch in tactics occurred hours after the Aqaba summit, when the bodies of a young Israeli couple were found stabbed and bludgeoned to death in Jerusalem.
The death toll began to rise despite the statistical drop in number of terrorist attacks and alerts.
By picking Israelis off one by one, Palestinian terrorists escape scathing condemnations from the international community and devastating reprisals by Israeli armed forces, while achieving the same effects. Israel’s security forces and the country as a whole remain in a state of high suspense for the next blow and diminishing confidence in Mahmoud Abbas and Dahlan as harbingers of an end to the violence.
The Palestinian prime minister is invited to the White House on July 25. Under pressure from Washington to shore him up, Israel may ease up on blanket ban against releasing Hamas and Jihad Islami prisoners and accept inventory register of Palestinians' illegal weapons instead of total disarming.