Interim Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi‘s travels in the West and his debut at UN headquarters in New York took place against the constant background accomapaniment of relentless combat in the Sunni Triangle hotbed of Fallujah. The nearer he came to Baghdad – Thursday, September 30, he reach London again on his return journey – the more he appreciated that the outcome of the Battle of Fallujah would determine both the fate of his government’s US-led war against the insurgency and his own personal future on the Iraqi scene.
That battle is expected to peak in early October.
A succession of utterances this week showed how pervasive and urgent this assessment has suddenly become:
Allawi himself said on Tuesday, September 28, that decisive military action may soon be carried out in the city of Fallujah if a political solution cannot be found.
The following day, he said: “We were patient long enough in Fallujah and the situation will have a military or political end soon.”
The interim prime minister did not specify who would carry out the attack. It may be that it will be left to US troops together with Kurdish Special Forces, the combination that won the day in the Najef revolt last month, without directly involving Iraqi troops in combat.
At roughly the same time in Baghdad, interim president Ghazi al-Yawar spoke out against “Gaza type” military operations in Fallujah and urged focusing the offensive against the insurgency on an “intelligence-based” campaign.
This sounded suspiciously like a contrary view of the war plans hatched by the Americans and Allawi for an allout military operation to subdue Fallujah.
The next speaker was another leading Iraqi figure, defense minister Hazam al-Shalaan. On Wednesday, September 29, he declared to Reuters news agency: “You wait and see what we are going to do. We are going to take all these rebel-held cities in October.”
Al Shalaan is one of the most competent members of the Allawi government. His statement was revealing. It meant first, that Iraqis would fight the October campaign and, second, that Fallujah was not the sum total of their objectives, but all the rebel-held cities, namely, Baqouba, Ramadi, Samarra, Baled and Mosul.
What emerges clearly from all these statements is that the Iraqi interim leadership is sorely divided over the handling of the most dangerous menace to Iraqi stability and its ability to hold a general election as soon as January since the Najef revolt.
A tempting offer from Sunni tribal chiefs
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iraq sources report that Allawi upon his return home will come up hard against major challenges to his continuing cooperation with the Americans on the model that ended the bloody violence in Najef:
First, a demand from four powerful Sunni tribal federations through Allawi to US military leaders to desist from a military offensive against Fallulah and to leave the flashpoint city to them. It comes from the Hamamdeh, which controls the Ramadi region northwest of Baghdad, the Jabour, which rules Saddam Hussein’s Tikrit province, the Jarir rulers of the Yusfia lands south of Baghdad and the Janari federation that holds sway over the Latafiya province.
To demonstrate their goodwill, the tribal leaders laid bare their game plan. First they are planning to issue very soon an ultimatum to all foreign Arab volunteers and al Qaeda combatants fighting in Fallujah to leave town or turn themselves in with their weapons in return for immunity from harm at the hands of the Iraqi government and the Americans alike. If they are still there when the ultimatum expires, thousands of Sunni tribal fighters well storm the town, capture it and hand it over to the Allawi government.
The tribal chiefs assure Allawi that, not only do they believe they command enough fighting strength to vanquish Fallujah, but they can count on many sections of the town’s population enthusiastically supporting them and helping drive out the foreigners and the terrorists.
The offer has certain attractions:
Iraqi Sunni leaders are offering to fight Baath guerrilla insurgents for the first time since the American invasion and the onset of the anti-coalition guerrilla war in May 2003. Such an offer is not to be treated lightly.
Leaving Fallujah to the tribal militias would save the lives of American combat troops.
The town’s capture by Iraqi Sunnis would eliminate the host supporting al Qaeda Iraqi chief Abu Musab al-Zarqawi‘s base of operations in Fallujah. (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 174: Zarqawi Divides Iraq into Nine-Square Checkerboard for Terror)
While seriously considering the offer and aware of its attractions, prime minister Allawi also sees its potential drawbacks. The tribal federations could follow up their capture by setting up their own government in Fallujah in competition with the federal government in Baghdad. With an effective military force at their command, they could go on to seize other parts of the Sunni Triangle and end up controlling the central heartland of the country.
Civilian and military strategists and planners who shape Bush administration policies in Washington entertain similar qualms. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington sources, some White House circles maintain that placing the fate of a critical military campaign in the hands of Sunni leaders who have hitherto declined to cooperate with the Americans despite interminable feelers and contacts, would be foolhardy with the presidential election no more than three of four weeks away.
Khaddam: the knave in the Syrian pack
Second, the returning Iraqi prime minister faces a threatened government revolt from an unexpected quarter, his fellow Shiite ministers. They are clamoring for tough measures against the rising tide of bloody terror slaughtering Iraqis day after day. This they say is more urgent than the Fallujah standoff. Their rationale for holding off on Fallujah may stem from the Shiite fear of the Sunni hotbed town falling into the hands of American and Kurdish Sunni troops. But according to our sources, the Shiite ministers are in deadly earnest about putting a stop to the car bombs, ambushes and hostage-taking drawing off Iraq’s lifeblood and jeopardizing its recovery. What they propose is a harsh deterrent measure. They want field tribunals set up to try, convict and summarily execute the more than 80 Baath guerrilla leaders, Zarqawi followers and foreign Arab combatants in prison or under detention, as an example to the insurgents and the terrorists of the fate awaiting them. Anything less severe, say the Shiite ministers, will not halt the insurgency and terrorism, whether or not Fallujah falls to the government.
As their prime minister addressed the UN General Assembly in New York, the Shiite ministers decided at an emergency meeting that if he turns them down, they will resign in a body.
Third, the Syrian dilemma is a constant headache for Allawi and the Americans. Neither ever placed too much reliance on the durability of the still embryonic bilateral arrangements drawn up by American and Syrian generals for sealing the Syrian-Iraqi border against the passage of anti-American fighters and weapons into Iraq. Nor did they expect much influence on the course of the armed confrontation in Fallujah. However, both were unpleasantly shocked by a highly secretive event that took place on Monday, September 27.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources reveal that Syrian vice president Halim Khadam was discovered flying out of Damascus aboard a military flight and landing at the Syrian-Iraqi border town of Abu Kamal, a key smuggling depot opposite Iraqi al Qaim for weapons, fighters and money destined for the Iraq Baath guerrillas. On landing there, he was escorted by a large military force across the border to the Iraqi-Syrian frontier point of Al Walid, where he found the heads of all the Arab frontier tribes, including President al-Yawar’s Shammar, waiting for him.
This surreptitious encounter flew in the face of every diplomatic convention. Even in the Middle East, it is unheard of for a top official of a country’s regime to sneak into a neighboring country for undercover dealings with the community leaders of a highly sensitive region – unbeknownst to the neighboring government.
Since this odd event occurred 24 hours before an American-Iraqi military delegation arrived in Damascus to discuss cooperation on cutting out illicit border traffic, the Syrian regime’s credibility plunged to nil.
Khaddam’s clandestine date with Iraqi border chieftains has aroused much speculation.
One surmise stems from the Syrian economy’s overdependence on smuggling as a source of revenue. Khaddam may have stolen over to ask the Iraqi tribal chiefs to only feign cooperation with the Iraqis and Americans in halting the illicit traffic, while in fact carrying on as usual. This theory is based on Khaddam’s own origin from the Abu Kamal village where much of his family still lives. Any promises he made to his tribal neighbors would therefore be trusted.
The other theory is that Iraqi interim president al-Yawar set up the meeting in order to sabotage Allawi’s moves in Fallujah and in the border district.