US war planners are anxiously rethinking the security and vetting measures current in American military installations in Iraq after defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld confirmed Wednesday, December 21, that the blast at Forward Operating Base at Marez in Mosul, 225 miles north of Baghdad on December 20 was the work of a suicide bomber, the first to strike a major US operations base. Eighteen Americans and four Iraqis were killed, more than 70 injured, at the shared US-Iraqi facility. What was almost certainly an inside job was claimed by Jaish Ansar al Sunna, one of al Qaeda’s three main terrorist arms in Iraq. (The others are Ansar al-Islam and Zarqawi’s group)
It was also Osama bin Laden‘s biggest terrorist strike against an American target in that country since the March 2003 invasion.
The tented mess hall was full at the time. American casualties included not only troops but civilian contractors and staffers of the giant US construction firm of Halliburton. Another of the 12 major firms employed in the reconstructing of Iraq, Contrack International, has been scared into pulling out of the country, further delaying Iraq’s recovery.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s terror experts, al Qaeda’s strategists have charted a radical change in tactics since the November US-Iraqi offensive in Fallujah wiped out one of their main bases. Similar tactical shifts have taken place in the group’s operational mode in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other parts of the Middle East.
This change is marked by three new features:
1. A focus on recruiting potential suicide bombers among Iraqi security units. Like Trojan horses, they will be assigned with infiltrating US units at shared installations and launching deadly attacks from within. The terrorist group estimates that by mid-2005, this stratagem will have raised US troop casualty numbers by 15-20%
2. The top al Qaeda echelon of bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri has approved plans for a new division of labor drawn up by local chiefs based in Syria and Iran. Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi’s terrorist legions, seriously battered by US-Iraqi Sunni Triangle offensives in November and December, are now relocated for strikes in Shiite regions in and around Baghdad. Also under Zarqawi’s command, Ansar al-Islam will redirect its aim at the Sunni Triangle, while Ansar al-Sunna will operate in the northwestern Iraqi centers of Mosul, Tel Afar, Haditha and the al Qaim region along the Iraqi-Syrian border.
3. Terrorist cells regrouping in Iraq, Iran and Syria will return to Fallujah and other Sunni Triangle cities after brief training.
New al Qaeda master plan is regional
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s terror experts report that al Qaeda’s plans over the coming months go well beyond Iraq. Singled out for attack are US military and strategic targets as well as oil fields and installations in Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Strategic facilities belonging to US allies – Israel, Egypt, Britain, Kuwait and other Gulf states – will be similarly targeted.
Toppling local Middle Eastern regimes, such as the Saudi royal house and government institutions, will drop down Al Qaeda’s list of priorities.
The fundamentalist terrorists’ ultimate goal, aside from killing more Americans, is to drive a wedge between Washington and its friends in Baghdad, Riyadh and Cairo.
Al Qaeda strategists understand that Allawi and Washington are linked by an umbilical cord. On the other hand, they believe that, by subverting Iraq’s security services and terrorizing US troops by suicide attacks, it is in their power to chip away steadily at the effort to create a new Iraqi army and so knock over the Allawi regime’s military props.
This will drive Allawi into increasing dependence on US protection in the face of a spiraling US and Iraqi death toll. The January 30 general election will come and go as an exercise in futility amid waves of exploding suicide bombers and assassins that will prevent the new national assembly from exercising its functions of appointing a government and writing a constitution.
The ensuing havoc will recall the disorder Israel suffered between 2001 and 2003 at the peak of the Palestinian suicide bombing war
American investigators at the scene of the Mosul attack have not been able to identify the bomber by forensic examination because he was blown to bits. It is therefore up to Ansar al Sunna to give their “martyr” a name. This shouldn’t take long. The group will be keen to trumpet its successful infiltration of the Iraqi army, especially of the units working alongside US forces. It is also counting on the rising number of fallen Americans to intensify popular pressure on President George W. Bush to withdraw US troops from the Iraqi quagmire.
Most Iraqi troops fail vetting
Nearly two years after the invasion of Iraq, only a minute number of Iraqi soldiers and security officers merit high security clearance from US screeners, meaning they are immune to recruitment by al Qaeda or the Baath underground.
Three groups pass muster – to some extent. They are:
— The 168-member Emergency Response Unit (ERU), a tough Iraqi security contingent responsible for guarding president Ghazi al-Yawar and prime minister Allawi and members of his government.
— The 2,894-member Intervention Force, a larger and less secure group than the ERU, and the 1,091-man Civil Intervention Force, most of whose recruits are still undergoing basic training. US intelligence and security officials had not put these men above acting as informers for terrorist groups in Iraq but doubted they could be persuaded to joint assault teams.
The Mosul suicide bombing has undermined those assumptions.
(See “US Commander: Don’t Look Behind You”, DNW 180, November 5, 2004).
Ordinary Iraqi armed forces, police, border police and security agencies are judged wide open to al Qaeda and Baath infiltration and even recruitment as suicide bombers.
At his end of year news conference on Monday, December 20, President Bush was candid for the first time about the real state of the Iraqi army and its chances of taking over from the US military.
“The whole [Iraqi] command structure necessary to have a viable military is not in place,” Bush said. “Iraq will never secure itself if they have troops that, when the heat is on, they leave the battlefield,” he added, calling that behavior “unacceptable.”
But, Bush said, Iraqi soldiers had fought well in Najaf and Fallujah. He conveniently forgot to mention that those troops were mostly Kurds, members of the 36th Iraqi commando battalion.
Less than 24 hours later, British prime minister Tony Blair praised Iraqi soldiers sacrificing their lives in the war against terror, during his surprise visit to Baghdad. But no sooner was he gone, when a single suicide bomber blew away both their assertions.
Losses and gains counted
The true military picture in Iraq is reflected in the following figures on fighting strength and casualties on both sides, troop and civilian losses and the impact of terrorists and kidnappers.
Size of Iraqi insurgent force in December 2004: More than 20,000
Number of foreign fighters present in November 2004: 3,000.
U.S. casualties up to December 21 2004 (including Mosul bombing):
1,316 dead, of whom 1,039 were killed in action; 9,944 wounded.
Number of insurgent attacks on coalition forces May 2003-December 2004: 13,580
Number of multiple-casualty car bombings, including suicide attacks May 2003-December 2004: 160
Number killed in those attacks: 1,594; wounded: 3,840
Insurgents losses, detained or killed, May 2003-December 2004: 32,000
Iraqi civilian deaths March 2003-December 2004: estimated between 14,668 and 16,853
Iraqi officials assassinated between June 2004 (when interim government appointed) and December 2004: at least 20
Iraqi police killed January 1-December 2004: 850
Iraqi security force recruits (not including police) killed May 1 2003-December 2004: (estimate) 1,650
Number of attacks on oil and gas pipelines, installations, and personnel up to December 13 2004: 172
Foreign nationals abducted in Iraq May 2003-December 2004: 160.
Number of hostages killed: 33; Released: 63; Still held: 37; Escaped: 3; Rescued: 2; Status unknown: 20
Non-U.S. coalition soldiers killed: 151
Total Iraqi soldiers trained and receiving training on November 22, 2004: 114,338