Iraq’s Baathist insurgents and al Qaeda’s Islamist terrorists are determined to make Iraq’s January 30 election memorable as a day of blood rather than a celebration of democracy. While election organizers plan massive patrols, curfews, sealed borders and driving restrictions to deter violence from Friday, January 28 to Sunday, January 30, the rebels and terrorists are plotting mega-attacks for those days to frighten 14.2 million eligible voters away from the polls.
They see Friday and Saturday as being a critical to their effort for three reasons:
1. To make sure that the carnage they wreak dominates Arab and Western media and Iraqi consciousness, placing the vote in the shade.
2. To demonstrate to the Iraqi voter the political inconsequentiality of the election and its results when the real power for determining the shape of government and makeup of the elected general assembly rests with the guerrillas.
3. To strike with maximum effect just before Election Day – both as a deterrent and on the assumption that coalition forces in Iraq will be at their highest state of alert on the day itself.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism sources report that the Baath party and al Qaeda have declared a general mobilization of their fighting strength in Iraq and abroad. Of the two groups, al Qaeda is making the stronger showing, raising volunteers in the Middle East, Persian Gulf, North Africa, Asia and West Europe whence an estimated 1,200 to 1,500 new recruits have been pouring into Iraq along with weapons, explosives and money.
Syria is training center and crossing point
The gunmen mustered to al Qaeda’s flag in the Arab world come from the Sunni regions of Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian territories. They foregather in the north Lebanese town of Tripoli and Beqaa Valley to register at local Syrian Baath offices. Next they are bused to Damascus for housing and training at two sites, the Al Fateh Al Islami School and the Al Zahra institute. Their next stop is Aleppo in northern Syria, where they are lodged in homes near the city’s grand mosque for more training and briefing for their Iraq missions.
After a few days, they are taken to the Qmeshilye and Hasaka districts of northern Syria and split up into small five-to-eight-member squads which Syrian officers escort to the Iraqi border. Other recruits slip into Iraq from southeastern Syria through the porous Al Qaim border area of western Iraq near the meeting-point of the Syrian, Iraqi and Jordanian frontiers.
Syria is also a transit point for al Qaeda election saboteurs from Algeria and Morocco. The Saudis, Yemenis, Kuwaitis and other Qaeda Gulf recruits gather at a mosque in Hawalli, a suburb of Kuwait City, their jumping off point to the Iraqi border. Gunmen recruited in the Far East — primarily Indonesian, Filipino and Malaysian members of the Jamaah Islamiya terrorist group — fly to Tehran on regular commercial flights and are then moved into Iraq.
In West Europe, Muslim extremists in relatively small numbers are being recruited, mainly in France, Germany, Belgium and Italy. This week, France detained 10 suspected al Qaeda recruiting agents for Iraq.
US intelligence officials estimate that between 1,200 and 1,500 al Qaeda fighters have infiltrated Iraq to join the attacks on polling stations and voters alongside 3,000 Iraqi Baath gunmen, of whom 800 were recruited for the anti-election campaign in Syria, Jordan, Yemen and the Persian Gulf. In total, al Qaeda and the Baath party have mobilized 4,000 to 4,200 guerilla fighters and terrorists. Forty percent are Iraqis, with equal contingents of Syrians, Yemenis and Saudis making up the rest of the force.
Al Qaeda and the Baath party have not set up a joint central headquarters to coordinate their planned attacks. Local commanders from the two organizations are cooperating at field level in such sensitive spots as the Mansour district of Baghdad and the cities of Baqouba in the east and Mosul in the north. Field commanders from the two groups check with each other to avoid striking the same target.
Up until this week, thousands of fighters, as we reported in our previous issue, were concentrated in an area stretching from northern Fallujah in central Iraq to Mosul, with the primary command center and the bulk of the forces concentrated in the town of Hit.
Early this week, they vanished.
Cat and mouse
Intelligence watchers believe they have taken up positions close to their designated targets. A key question is: why have American forces not attacked and destroyed these contingents? The answer is twofold: first, the gunmen have split up into small groups and gone to ground in densely populated areas. To root them out, American forces would need very large numbers for house-to-house searches. This would have dangerously depleted US ranks in Baghdad, Mosul and other major Iraqi cities, opening gaps for the enemy to penetrate election security.
Moreover, the US command is short of intelligence on the precise locations of the terrorists’ forward bases of operation.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iraq sources stress that even when such intelligence is available to American commanders, its credibility is almost impossible to ascertain before use.
This was illustrated by an episode that occurred Tuesday, January 25. A US Marine unit was directed by a tipster to a suburban house in Hit where a band of terrorists was said to be hiding up and preparing to strike on election day. The Marines burst in to the designated house and found it empty and apparently recently evacuated by its occupants. As they pulled back, the Marines stepped into a well-laid ambush near the local mosque and lost four of their number in insurgent crossfire. Subsequent analysis of the setback pointed to the informer’s tip as having laid the ground for the ambush.
At the same time, our sources report increasing clashes around Hit and Balad as terrorist groups attempt to head south towards their predetermined target zones and American forces block their path and seize prisoners.
The US military has also intensified its efforts to seal Iraq’s borders against armed interlopers on their way to disrupt the elections. This effort was seriously set back by the
CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter crash in the Iraqi desert Wednesday, January 26, in which 31 Marines and crew lost their lives. Our military sources report the Marines were being lifted into the Wadi Swab district of al Qaim, their mission being to secure the central incursion point against terrorists from Syria.
Our sources report that a new situation has developed whereby American bases north of Fallujah, around Hit and Balad, are being shelled by Baathist guerrillas and al Qaeda.