US authorities in Iraq have head-hunted a hard-hitting former Iraqi general for the most dangerous task in the country: bringing the Sunni Triangle under control.
He is General Wafiq Samarri, a 52-year-old former Iraqi military intelligence chief, who was forced into exile in Damascus in the 1990s by his rocky relations with the deposed dictator Saddam Hussein. As soon as Saddam was gone, Samarri hurried home to his native Samarra, which is situated inside the Triangle about midway between Baghdad and Saddam’s birthplace of Tikrit.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Baghdad, Samarri was chosen for the job by US administrator Paul Bremer, central command chief General John Abizaid and commander of ground forces in Iraq, General Ricardo Sanchez. His mission is to impose law and order in the region and gain control of its main cities, from Fallujah and Ramadi in the south to Baquba in the east and Balad and Samarra in the north. This entails the unenviable tasks of purging the strategic Sunni Triangle of Baathist diehards, as well as al Qaeda, Ansar al-Islam and imported Arab fighters, overcoming the strong loyalties for Saddam that many local clans still entertain, and protecting the vulnerable pipelines stretching from the Basra oil fields in the south to the refinery cities at Baiji and Kirkuk in the north.
The job is not quite as daunting as it appears – or not yet.
The last few weeks have seen a significant dip in the number of guerrilla attacks on US forces in this wayward region and in Iraq at large. Once mounted daily, assaults are now spaced three or four days apart and cause less damage than before. Roadside bombs are still a problem but coordinated attacks by guerrillas using rockets, mortars and fast get-away vehicles have diminished. Oil pipelines are sabotaged much less frequently; the gangs who once torched them have turned to draining off oil they can sell, suggesting that some of the guerrilla groups are short of funds and prefer cash to vandalism.
All this holds true for Baath party forces.
However, in contrast, Arab tribes in the Mosul area and al Qaeda and Arab fighters at the southern base of the iron triangle, mainly in Fallujah and Ramada, are holding their fire against the Americans and turning to devastating terrorist attacks against Iraqis. The generally improved security climate surrounding the US presence in Iraq is an illusion. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, coalition forces are on tenterhooks for what they call an Iraqi Tet Offensive in the spring months of April or May, which they are sure will plague the run-up to Iraq’s transition to sovereignty.
Our sources report the US administration has given Samarri an operating fund worth tens of millions of dollars and a 12,000-strong mixed force of soldiers, members of the new Iraqi border guard and police. Some of the money will be used to grease the palms of local Sunni tribal leaders for contracts to cleanse their fiefs of guerrilla and criminal elements and keep them secure.
The former intelligence general will engage the tribal chiefs as their peer. His own clan is one of the largest, richest and most respected in Samarra.
Private contractors, many of them American and Canadian, are now building high walls and a deep moat around his clan’s villa compound in the center of the town, turning it into a fortress containing helicopter pads, troop barracks, command centers and communications and radar facilities. Visitors report the area reminds them of Baghdad’s Green Zone which encloses the heavily fortified US civilian and military administration centers.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iraq experts note that the Sunni Triangle will be the second major region the coalition is handing over to a former officer of Iraq’s armed forces. Iraq’s ex-minister of defense, Hashem Mahmud Sultan, has been give command of a strategic stretch of territory near the Syrian border in northern Iraq.