Since March, US and Turkish special forces, with local Kurdish support have been building up their control of northern Iraq. During these months, Saddam Hussein appeared inert. However, he used the time to quietly stiffen the anti-American Bayara-Tawilla region in northeast Iraq near the Iranian border, which is dominated by the radical Kurdish Ansar al-Islam. He fostered an expanded al Qaeda presence there and injected into the enclave Iraqi intelligence units, followed by Republican Guards units.
This week, he was ready for his first counter-move.
On Wednesday, December 4, a force made up of this radical brew pounced on two isolated hilltop positions on the land of the pro-US Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Jalal Talabani’s PUK, which has been working closely with US special units. Letting the UN arms inspectors chase the shadows of his weapons of mass destruction, Saddam’s men attacked the two positions. Their capture brought the invaders to a point southeast of Sulaimaniyeh and Kirkuk and dangerously close to strategic Halabjah on the Iranian border.
Six days earlier, on another continent, Al Qaeda demonstrated an unsuspected air combat capability in well-synchronized assaults on Israel targets at the Kenyan resort town of Mombasa.
Two cells of the fundamentalist network sent SA-7 Strela surface-to-air missiles speeding towards an Israeli Arkia Boeing 757 during takeoff from Mombasa international airport with 261 Israeli passengers and crew aboard. They missed.
Down the road, the party checking into the Mombasa Paradise Hotel and the local staff were less fortunate. Additional terror teams hit the hotel twice, killing thirteen people, 10 Kenyans and three Israelis. First, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the lobby, after hurling himself out of a jeep packed with some 300 kg (660 lb) of explosives, which crashed the walls. A local troupe was dancing a welcome for the new arrivals from Israel. Three dancers were killed. The other buildings burst into flame when hit by more bombs dropped out of a light plane hovering overhead. This completed the hotel’s destruction (See also HOT POINTS below).
None of the attackers was taken alive; the ones who got away left no trace. The Israeli and Kenyan investigating teams quickly decided they had escaped in light planes or fast boats waiting to pick them up on a nearby Indian Ocean beach.
Claims and counter claims of prior knowledge came next. American and Australian intelligence said they had expected an al Qaeda terror strike in Kenya. Brig.-Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, Israeli military intelligence head of research, admitted Israel had been informed of a general threat in East Africa, but nothing specific.
As for the attack in northern Iraq, it was staged in the eastern part of autonomous Kurdistan, the domain of Jalal Talabani which centers on the big oil city of Kirkuk and the Turkish towns of Irbil and Halabjah. His 20,000-strong army has been training for six months with US instructors in the use of American equipment and weapons. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources disclose that small US special forces teams have been attached to PUK army units for join action.
The PUK’s former rival – and current partner in the pro-US Kurdish front – Massoud Barzani’s Democratic Front of Kurdistan, or KDP – fields its own army which is almost as big as Talabani’s and controls the western part of Kurdistan.
On December 3, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report the Kurdish radical-al
Qaeda-Iraqi force headed south from its enclave in Bayara in northern Kurdistan. The next day, they attacked the two PUK hilltop positions outside Halabjah, home to 44,000 Kurds, laying down a heavy artillery barrage. Within hours, they had closed in and captured the positions in hand-to-hand combat. Both sides took casualties estimated at 30.
After this contretemps, it is essential for Talabani’s men and the American special forces units to fight off the Iraqi al Qaeda-supported Kurdish push towards Halabjah, whose fall, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources say, would be a grave setback for US forces in northern Iraq and a blow to America’s war preparations against Iraq. Such a defeat would shake the morale of America’s Kurdish supporters and their confidence that US military force can protect them from Saddam’s long reach, a bitter taste of which Halabjah’s Kurds had 16 years ago when his chemical weapons poisoned 5,000 to death.
When the chief’s away…
This combined snatch for territory friendly to the American assault was made possible by two unforeseen circumstances, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and intelligence sources disclose:
A. The breakdown of US-Iranian military and intelligence cooperation (as reported in DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s November 29 issue). No one but Iranian intelligence has managed to penetrate these arcane radical regions of northern Kurdistan. Iranian agents’ output on al Qaeda movements was priceless and is irreplaceable.
B. PUK leader Talabani was away. Invited to join a conference of Iraqi opposition leaders taking place in London on December 10, the Kurdish chieftain decided to leave a few days earlier and spend them in Paris. Al-Qaeda’s surprise attack literally caught him napping in a Paris hotel. Its precision timing exposed the depth of Iraqi intelligence’s infiltration of the highest ranks of the PUK army. These spies handed the al Qaeda-led force Talabani’s itinerary.
This episode is an uncomfortable reminder to those concerned of the surprise Iraqi assault on CIA bases in northern Kurdistan in September 1996 and the brutal way it cut short the most ambitious military operation the agency ever mounted to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
Then, as now, the CIA, relying mainly on Barzani’s Democratic Front of Kurdistan, or KDP, set up a chain of communications and intelligence bases, as well as landing strips, inside northern Iraq. However, Iraqi military intelligence was able to subvert sections of the rival PUK, sending them to hit the CIA bases where Kurdish militiamen were training.
Caught badly off-balance, the CIA agents had time only to grab any transport available and hightail it across the border to Turkey, abandoning some of the agency’s most secret and sensitive military and communications systems. As in the dying days of Saigon, the United States focused on getting its own people out of town, turning a deaf ear to desperate pleas for rescue from the Kurdish fighters who had thrown in their lot with the Americans. Faced with the cruel choice of saving either CIA personnel or Kurdish militiamen, they opted for the former, advising their allies to try and make their own way to Turkey.
The Kurds didn’t make it. They were captured by Iraqi military intelligence and executed, some after being tortured. The 1996 CIA debacle in northern Kurdish is still regarded as one of the most painful and humiliating of any in its experience.
Today, the fall of Halabja would open the way for Iraqi military intelligence to pour combat units dressed as tribesmen – some reports reaching DEBKA-Net-Weekly suggest they are already on the move – into the area. They would help al Qaeda and Ansar al-Islam solidify their gains and reach out for additional conquests in northern Kurdistan. Such combined Iraqi-al Qaeda thrusts my not be confined to the Halabja region; similar units may try the same tactic to capture the oil cities of Mosul and Kirkuk.
This development, even if it is partial, could confront the United States with some hard choices quite soon. Over the weekend or early next week, General Tommy Franks’ US military command may decide to rush large quantities of weapons to the Talabani and Barzani forces to enable them to stand up to an Iraqi offensive. US forces may have to join the fighting to prove to both Kurdish armies that they have not been left in the lurch in the battlefield.
A security source in the field told DEBKA-Net-Weekly: “Kurdish memories of the 1996 horrors are enduring. They live in fear of history repeating itself and that they will again be left to Saddam’s mercies. The US command will therefore have no option but to move decisively and swiftly to restore the balance in the Kurdish regions so that the setback outside Halabjah does not become the first domino of a row that could flatten US military gains thus far.”
It would be enough for the Iraqis and their allies to grab a second small piece of territory from American or Turkish special troops to place a big question mark over the launching of a general US offensive against Iraq in early winter. It would set the offensive back by the several weeks, the time needed for US forces to make up their losses in the north in order to accomplish an easy victory in the south.
The Iraqis took full advantage of the attention given to the UN arms inspectors’ fruitless searches. Saddam threw down the gauntlet for President Bush four days before he was required by the UN Security Council to fully declare any weapons of mass destruction in his possession. He cockily laid before the American President proof of his cooperation with bin Laden’s terrorists by ordering a joint, belligerent maneuver against America’s Kurdish ally. The White House must decide whether to use this evidence or not while, in the meantime, Iraq, like al Qaeda, makes good use of Washington’s indecision.