Iraqi interim prime minister Iyad Allawi is bent on following up the quelling of the radical Moqtada Sadr‘s revolt in Najef and the Baghdad Sadr City slum with a similar feat against the insurgency in the Sunni Triangle north of Baghdad. He has fixed on Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of the capital as the starting point, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and Baghdad sources.
From that point, the military offensive is planned to follow the lines of the operation against the Mehdi Army militia in Najef.
The choice of Baqouba rather than the Fallujah hotbed in western Iraq will provide government forces with control of the Iranian frontier. Allawi was no doubt advised by his military commanders and American advisers that the success of the offensive is predicated on his command of the forces needed to seal central Iraq from Iran. This lesson was learned in the Najef battle, when Iranian assistance reached Sadr through the wide open Iranian border into southern Iraq.
According to our sources, the makeup of the force for striking in the Sunni Triangle will also be similar to that which fought in Najef – mostly American plus Kurdish commando battalions which will form the backbone of the Iraqi force. Iraqi national guardsmen will be there for the benefit of news cameras to record how well the new Iraqi army performs in combat.
That the Kurdish 36th Commando Battalion spearheaded the fighting in Najef alongside the 11th US Marine Task Force has had two key results of national importance:
Allawi has appointed the Kurdish general, 75-year old Bakr Zebari, as chief of staff of the new Iraqi army. Since the end of July, when the last chief of staff, General Amer Hashmi, was secretly fired after a nest of Baath-al Qaeda spies was uncovered in his office (first revealed in DNW 167 on July 30, 2004), the Iraqi army functioned without a chief of staff, even in the Najef battles. According to our sources in Kurdistan, General Zebari, who belongs to the Kurdish chief Mustafa Barzani‘s faction, is rated highly despite his advanced age as one of the finest professional soldiers in Iraq. He is credited with having whipped the Kurdish peshmerga militia into a professional and orderly military force. His appointment indicates that Allawi has decided to build the Iraqi army on the bedrock of Kurdish officers and men and a minority of Sunni and Shiite Arab troops.
Allawi was supported in this nomination, according to our sources, by the Shiite defense minister Hazem Shaalan and the Sunni interior minister, Falah al-Naqib. This consensus created a three-way alliance at the top of Iraq’s government tree which lasted through the fighting in Najef and was strengthened by the minister of state for military affairs Qassem Daud, who was charged by Allawi with preparing the new offensive against the Sunni insurgents, and deputy prime minister for national security Barhim Salih (a Kurd).
Together, this band of Iraqi ministers forms the heart of the interim regime in Baghdad. They share hawkish views in general and believe in a firm policy towards Iran and Syria.
Further considerations behind the decision in Baghdad to take on the Sunni Triangle at this time:
US and Iraqi intelligence put the Sunni fighting strength deployed between the Iraq-Iranian and Iraq-Jordanian borders as from 9,000 to 10,000 combatants, put up by the Baath insurgents, elements of Sadr’s Shiite Mehdi Army militia which did not fight in Najef, foreign Arab fighters and al Qaeda. Neither the Iraqi prime minister nor US commanders regard this force as a formidable military challenge.
Allawi has discovered from his intelligence advisers that al Qaeda’s leading operations officer in Iraq, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, left Iraq a week ago for Tehran. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, he crossed from northern Kurdistan to the Iranian town of Marivan. No one seems to know why he left now and where he is headed – whether to assume a low profile for the coming anti-Sunni offensive or to raise troops and cash for the fight.
So determined is the Iraqi prime minister to keep the Iranians out of the coming fray that, in addition to sealing the border, he is planning to declare the Iranian charge d’affaires in Baghdad Kazemi Qomi persona non grata and expel him, even at the price of exacerbating frictions with Tehran. Intelligence information has reached him and US commanders that Qomi is nothing but a Revolutionary Guards general under diplomatic cover working under the orders of General Jhassem Soleimani, commander of the al Quds battalions of the Revolutionary Guards.
The al Quds battalions are the host units of al Qaeda’s operatives in Iran, including Zarqawi. Allawi is convinced that with Zarqawi and Qomi out of Iraq, the operation in the Sunni Triangle will be shorter and easier.
The Iraqi government is also encouraged by one Triangle city, Samarra, upon scenting the wind of battle, deciding that the better part of valor was negotiation. In recent days, Allawi has paid several visits to the town to head up the talks. Samarra’s leaders have accepted the principle laid down by the Four Grand Ayatollahs of Najef, led by Ali Sistani, prohibiting warfare for the sake of political or religious gains.
Some top American officials and commanders in Iraq are not party to Allawi’s optimism about the coming fight, finding it excessive. Despite the positive ending of the Najef conflict, largely owing to Sistani’s intercession, the victory over Sadr’s rebel force was not as complete as the Iraqi prime minister seems to believe. Large sections of the rebellious militia withdrew safe and unscathed to other Shiite cities such as al Kut and Amara, very likely to rest and replenish their stocks of weapons and ammunition and see how the wind blows. The situation remains fluid in Baghdad’s Shiite quarter too. Although the ceasefire that began Tuesday night, July 31, is holding, the Mehdi Army militia has not disarmed or disbanded there either and may be preparing to regroup. Neither is there much sign of Sadr himself making any moves to go into politics.
Most of all, some seasoned US experts on Iraq question the assumption that the fight for control of defiant Sunni towns like Fallujah and Ramadi will be a cakewalk because of the paucity of pro-Baath fighting men. One senior American official pointed out to our sources: “It will be enough for one town or region, like al Qaim, to hold out for any length of time, for the entire offensive to get bogged down.”