It would be surprising if Iraq’s interim prime minister Iyad Allawi was left with any nails unbitten after waiting since last month for his sponsor George W. Bush to win the November 2 American presidential election and get the assault on Fallujah underway.
This was one Arab leader who did not imagine for a moment that Democratic Senator John Kerry would capture the White House. Along with only two other Arab leaders – Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and Jordan’s King Abdullah – he wanted to see Bush win a second term and carefully avoided any interchange with Kerry.
But neither did he expect any delays in deciding who would occupy the White House for the next four years to hold up the Fallujah operation any longer. Originally scheduled for between 10 days and two weeks before the US election, it was postponed more than once – often at only hours’ notice – after authority for the final ok passed from the generals to the presidential candidate’s top adviser, Karl Rove. Allawi expected the White House to order the axe dropped on the Sunni guerrilla-terrorist hotbed the morning after the Bush victory.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources, the US Marines are all set to go. Agreements struck with local militia leaders have opened the way for them to advance on the city unopposed through secure entry points, unlike the military assault on Samarra last month.
But the delay has been costly.
It has given Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the terror scourge of Iraq, breathing space to get his men out of Fallujah and move them upriver to the small town of Hit on the Euphrates, some 20 miles (32 km) northwest of the besieged city beyond Ramadi. The intelligence procured for the Americans by the legion of mediators negotiating with Fallujah’s militia chiefs confirms Zarqawi’s presence in the city. They say he has found relatively safe means of commuting between Fallujah and Hit to exercise control over his followers.
Questions up in air
In the short-term, the American Fallujah operation ought to reduce the volume of guerrilla attacks in Baghdad and ease some of the pressure on Allawi’s embattled government. But more importantly, it is a crucial part of Bush’s long-term strategy for Iraq and the Middle East. Its postponement has left five critical questions up in the air:
A. The survivability of central government in Baghdad before and after the Iraqi general election scheduled for January 2005.
B. Will the January ballot, timed for the same month as Inauguration Day in the United States, divide Iraq between the Shiites and Kurds, who will then rule over the Sunni Arabs? Or will the election act as a unifying catalyst for incorporating the relatively small but belligerent Sunni Muslim community in government?
C. How will the second-term US president handle Iran and its nuclear program? Is the Islamic republic in Washington’s sights for military action?
D. Will the United States continue to let Syria’s Bashar Assad get away with his flagrantly anti-American tactics? First he helped Saddam Hussein flout UN sanctions, then he provided a secret hideouts for his weapons of mass destruction. Now, Syria allows a safe exit base for a stream of Iraqi, Arab and al Qaeda fighters to join up with the Baath insurgents, causing hundreds of American troop casualties in Iraq and nearly costing Bush the White House. Will the reelected US president decide he has been given a mandate for breaking away from his low-key treatment of Syria and embarking on direct action against the Assad regime – at the same time taking out a registered terrorist organization, Syria’s Hizballah proxy in Lebanon?
E. If and when Bush decides to withdraw US forces from Iraq, will he do so in 2005 or in mid-2006? A first straw in the wind was thrown out in the president’s victory speech in Washington on November 3. “We will help the democracies of Iraq and Afghanistan, so that they have the strength to defend their freedom and our servicemen can come home with the honor they have earned.”
The US president is clearly aiming for a timeframe on the military withdrawal. But he does not have long. He cannot afford to let it ride for four more years – and not only because of the obvious debilitating cost in lives and resources. By late 2007 or early 2008, the issue must be resolved and the troops brought home so as to give the next Republican presidential candidate a whole year free and clear of controversy over the US troop presence in Iraq to shape his campaign strategy.
US and Iraqi forces poised for assault on the key hotbed of Fallujah, are waiting tensely for their commander in chief’s order to go forward. They know that Fallujah is the key to defeating the Iraqi Sunni insurgency and crippling the operations of the al Qaeda-linked terrorist and hostage-taker al-Zarqawi and his ilk. With northern Kurdistan and the southern Shiite regions of Iraq more or less pacified, military success in subduing the terrorist-supported Sunni guerrilla insurgency will determine how long US troops stay in Iraq.
Iraq election looms softly
One mammoth task ahead is to bring Iraq safely to its January elections and the establishment of democratically elected government.
Amid the US election razzle-dazzle, scant attention was paid in the United States or even the Middle East to the opening of 548 voter registration centers in Iraq on Monday, November 1, setting in motion a six-week electoral process that poses a huge security challenge for US troops after decades of authoritarian rule. Some 14 million Iraqis will elect and run for office for a national assembly, the semi-autonomous Kurdistani parliament and 18 provincial councils. Saddam-era databases for food rationing are the basis for the initial voter roll. Citizens collecting ration books find voter registration clerks waiting at the distribution centers holding out registration forms and updating their family’s particulars. Food distribution stations have so far not been targeted by terrorists. Thirty-five UN workers have been assigned to aid the 600 Iraqi electoral clerks, including 8 election experts.
US commanders are preparing for every kind of violence at election rallies and voting booths, from terrorist massacres to fights and sabotage among competing political rivals.
US military preparations for the vote are also taken as a signal that US forces are beginning to gear up for withdrawal from the embattled country. This linkage has not been lost on the Iraqis.
It is too soon to count the political lists running for the January poll. But, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Baghdad, two main population blocs, the Shiites Muslims and the Kurds, have emerged and are already urging their followers to register at the stations. Grand ayatollah Ali Sistani and his aides are making a supreme effort to forge a united Shiite front. This community has the numbers – 65% of the population – to capture a majority in the national assembly and seize control of central government in Baghdad through the ballot box, provided it puts up a unified bloc.
While the Kurdish minority is much smaller, only one-fifth of the population, the Kurds are Sunni Muslims and will be striving to expand their voter base to include Sunni Arabs and thereby challenge the quantitatively stronger Shiite bloc.
But for the present, most Sunnis show no sign of going back on their decision to boycott the election.
Will Kurds and Shiites hold Sunni aggression down?
Nonetheless, the Kurds have one key advantage over the Shiites. Their goals are geographically contained in one northern Iraqi region, Kurdistan. Whereas the Shiites seek dominance over all Iraq – first by adding Baghdad to their present domains in the southern city-regions of Karbala, Basra and Najaf, the Kurds will be satisfied with an independent entity in Kurdistan. Their ambitions do not extend to the domination of the national parliament or the country per se.
Creating the regional Kurdish government of the north, independent of Baghdad, is one of the few clear-cut consequences of the US war in Iraq. Some Iraq experts believe therefore that the second Bush administration will build on the Iraqi election to establish its counterpoint, a Shiite government in Baghdad that will be freed of the Sunni insurgent and Islamist terrorist menace by Fallujah’s recapture and purge by US forces. It is hoped in Washington that Kurdish rule from their northern cities of Irbil and Kirkuk and a Shiite-controlled government Baghdad will provide the foundation for Kurdish-Shiite cooperation in taming the Sunnis for some time to come.
The weak point of this plan, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources, is the lack of a strong military force to underpin this political arrangement. Even after some 15,000 US troops are able to subdue Fallujah, no local or external military force visible in Iraq today is capable of taking charge of security in the main Sunni Triangle cities and the insurgent hotbeds of Greater Baghdad.
So far, efforts by the United States and others, including NATO member countries, to set up and train an effective Iraqi army have failed.