The United States appears to be cock-a-hoop on the diplomatic front. This week, the UN Security Council passed 15:0 a resolution granting international recognition to the provisional Iraqi government as the legitimate recipient of sovereignty on June 30 and mandating the US-led multinational force’s stay in the country. The resolution was carried Tuesday night, June 8, as leaders of the Group of Eight gathered on Sea Island, Georgia, for a cozy get-together on President George W. Bush‘s Greater Middle East Initiative. The new Iraqi president Ghazi al-Awar‘s debut was a triumph. He promised the summit he would make Iraq the second Middle East – and first Arab – democracy.
The jokey atmosphere gave American leaders a brief respite from a nagging worry besetting them ever since May 15 when a lone 155 mm shell converted into a roadside bomb exploded near a US convoy heading for Baghdad international airport.
The shell, which bore no markings, contained deadly sarin nerve gas. This was confirmed in US lab tests.
Subsequent investigations led Washington and US military commanders in Iraq to an inescapable conclusion, revealed exclusively here by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and intelligence sources: Baath Party insurgents, al Qaeda terrorists and firebrand cleric Moqtada Sadr have obtained access to stores of sarin, the gas that killed 12 people aboard a Tokyo subway train in 1995, and they have learned how to pack it into explosive charges for use in one of their ubiquitous roadside bombs.
Intelligence officials now believe that Shiite and Sunni insurgents are in a conspiracy to wreak havoc in the period of Iraq’s transition to sovereignty by using the charges on or around June 30 and early July.
American civil and military authorities are in a race against time to pre-empt these attacks by forging deals with Sunni leaders that will put local Iraqi forces in place to secure and preserve law and order in the restive Sunni Triangle cities. These local arrangements are intended to put distance between US troops in the area and any non-conventional weapons in Iraqi guerrilla insurgent hands, while keeping open channels of communication with their leaders.
US commanders are also offering large cash rewards for information leading to the discovery of the sarin stockpiles, to which Shiite rebels are also believed to have access – and al Qaeda too.
No peril less than this nerve gas could have persuaded Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the preeminent Shiite figure in Iraq and highly respected beyond its borders, to receive Sadr last Saturday, June 6, and spend four hours talking to him.
It was their first meeting since the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. It ended with Sadr promising a truce and the withdrawal of his militia from the city. Sistani publicly praised and even blessed the young cleric, although no one realistically expected him to abide by his pledge.
Sistani put his reputation on the line hoping his intercession would ward off an unspeakable evil. He and his aides explained to the Americans that the setbacks and heavy losses suffered by Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia in battles with US forces in the Shiite shrine cities of Najaf, Karbala and Kufa had left the rebel cleric with the unacceptable option of retiring and admitting defeat, or resorting to the dreaded sarin which had been made available to him. This would lead to an intolerable loss of Shiite lives.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources, investigations thus far lead to three assumptions:
Iraqi Sunni and Shiite insurgents alike have access to – but do not control – the sources of sarin gas – with which additional chemical and biological agents, such as mustard gas and anthrax, may also be hidden.
These weapons of mass destruction are controlled by a Baath-ruled central command somewhere and distributed to guerrilla groups according to still unknown criteria. Intelligence probes have not discovered whether the guerrillas are given the toxic substance on presentation of a target list or handed a list of objectives by this Baath-controlled command center along with the deadly weapon of attack.
The two insurgent forces did not just stumble by chance on caches of weapons of mass destruction. They were scattered across Iraq in secret hiding places known only to the Baathist underground center before or after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003 – or even prior to the US invasion. Saddam’s dead sons, Uday and Qusay, are believed to have been in charge of the hidden sarin stores. After their deaths, control passed into other Baathist hands. The hidden command group passing out the poison gas to the insurgents appears to be made up of former senior military and intelligence officers loyal to Saddam Hussein.
The original guidelines accompanying the stockpiles ordered their release to the various rebel groups when the Americans transferred sovereignty to a new Iraqi government.
These hypotheses stem primarily from the operational orders the Baath Party issued on May 25 this year in a pamphlet to all its adherents. It stressed that the deposed dictator had predicted everything that happened to the country in the last year in a speech he delivered to his followers during his last walkabout in the streets of Baghdad on April 9, 2003 under the eyes of TV cameras. Already then he warned the Baath party that its most important mission would be to topple any new Iraqi government rising in Baghdad, a task that must take precedence even over attacks against the American occupiers.
Intelligence gathered on the interaction between the WMD suppliers and the Sunni and Shiite insurgent movements has led to even more disturbing discoveries:
The Sunni guerrillas in Fallujah and Sadr’s Shiite insurgents in Najef and Sadr City have been synchronizing their offensive operations.
They are working in unison not only on the military level; Sunni and Shiite councils of sages are in close communication in cities across central and southern Iraq.
Contrary to US thinking until the recent upsurge of Sunni and Shiite violence in early April, the two groups are not conducting separate rebellions but a concerted guerrilla war.
The well-oiled partnership between Sunni Baathist guerrillas and radical Shiite militiamen presents a major threat to the stability of the new Iraqi government and to the US-led coalition troops responsible for maintaining security. It is even more worrying when two sinister elements – al Qaeda and Iranian Revolutionary Guards – are factored into the equation.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources learn that Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has taken a personal interest in the deployment of a Revolutionary Guards (Pazdaran) force in Iraq and in fostering the Sunni-Shiite rebel alliance. He can be presumed to know about the sarin available to the insurgent axis although he has no hand in its distribution.
Khamenei is careful never to intervene directly in the Iraq situation. He lets his wishes be known through two proxies in Beirut: Hizballah and Syrian military intelligence agents. He has also used this roundabout route in recent weeks to transfer to Iraq funds originally earmarked for Hizballah and Palestinian terrorist groups. This reassignment of Iranian funds has certainly contributed to the 45 percent drop in Palestinian attempts to stage terror attacks in Israel.
According to a well-informed intelligence source, Iran’s current investment in Iraq is 20-fold its funding for the Lebanese Shiite Hizballah.
The money is being spent on the deployment of an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 well-trained Pazdaran fighters in Iraq’s Shiite population centers. They are on standby for orders from Tehran to join insurgent action. The Iranian government has been keeping these troops on the mark ready to go into combat against US forces in Iraq, should the standoff with Washington over Iran’s nuclear weapons program flare into a full-blown confrontation.
Tehran has a second ulterior motive in maintaining a fighting contingent in Iraq.
Sistani’s star in the Shiite world is on the ascendant. Furthermore, relations are steadily deepening between the ayatollahs of Iraqi Najef and their colleagues in the Iranian holy city of Qom. Khamenei resents this and is going to great lengths to slow the relationship down. He may use the fighting men at his command in Iraq to forcibly re-establish Tehran’s supremacy in the Shiite world.
To this end, the Iranian hard-line ruler is making sure that the radical cleric Sadr does not disappear from the Iraqi stage; he will also prop his revolt up against US forces. The maverick is destined by Khamenei for a pivotal role in the anti-American front alongside the Sunni Baath insurgents and the Lebanese Hizballah headed by Hassan Nasrallah. This front is also to be tasked with curbing Sistani’s spreading influence.
There are grounds to fear that these interwoven conflicts may bring sarin nerve gas into the hands of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards units.
Sistani resorted to pacific tactics in a bid to rein in the radical cleric and prevent the catastrophe of a poison substance being let loose in the two Shiite shrine cities of Najef and Karbala, or Baghdad’s Shiite Sadr City. Not all his fellow ayatollahs accept this approach; most of Najaf’s clergy would prefer a strong hand against the wayward young firebrand. They would rather crush his rebellion now, even at the risk of bringing unconventional weapons into the holy places. If he is not finished now, they say, he will get stronger and that much harder to put down.
The Bush administration, burned once by the missing WMD issue, would prefer not to be burned again by a chemical weapon. Intelligence is still the key, as it was from mid-January to early March 2003, when convoys of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction were filmed by satellites rolling into Syria. Then, Washington opted not to strike the trucks. Now, with only a single sarin shell in hand, there is not much to be done without more precise information on where the chemical weapons are hidden or who is in charge of them.
If an individual or group holding sarin decides to put a quantity on sale – that would be a break. Without solid intelligence, Washington’s hands are tied. The intelligence gathered so far is not enough to prove Saddam had an active unconventional weapons program on line. Going public on the sarin threat could send its controllers diving into hiding and leave US officials stammering again before a skeptical public in a presidential election year. They are therefore keeping a low profile on the single shell that turned up.
In any case, a certain political myopia has developed on the weapons of mass destruction issue.
Monday, June 7, acting chief UN weapons inspector Demetrius Perricos informed the UN Security Council in a closed session that his team had found 20 engines used in Iraq’s banned SA-2 missiles in a Jordan scrap-yard along with other equipment which could be used to make weapons of mass destruction. The UN team was following up on an earlier discovery of a similar Al Samoud 2 engine in a scrap yard in the Dutch port of Rotterdam. Inspectors want to take a look in Turkey which has also taken scrap metal from Iraq.
These discoveries, said Perricos, raise questions about the fate of material and equipment that could be used to produce biological and chemical weapons as well as banned long-range missiles.
Later he told reporters that up to a thousand tons of scrap metal were leaving Iraq every day with hardly any control. A number of sites in Iraq known to have contained equipment and material that could be used to produce banned weapons and long-range missiles had been cleaned out or destroyed.
None of this made much impact.
Americans and others in the West have made up their minds that the US president and the British and Australian prime ministers overstated or even falsified Iraq’s WMD to justify the 2003 allied invasion of Iraq. This reflects a political posture rather than an objective assessment of the facts as they emerge. It has reached the point when nothing less than an unconventional weapons mega-attack causing massive loss of life can dent this wall of disbelief. Even then, Bush would be accused of placing US troops, coalition forces and Iraqi civilians, in harm’s way by mismanaging the campaign against Iraq’s insurgents.
This US administration may have no choice but to sit back and let further developments in Iraqi unfold, however the risky this course may be.