US policy-makers have decided to compensate for the manifest American inadequacies in Iraq by switching round their strategic objectives and bypassing the US-appointed Governing Council in Baghdad.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Washington’s sources, accelerated military offensive operations will be given priority over setting the regime in order. The bulk of US forces in Iraq will be drawn in from the outlying corners and massed in the central region of Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle, leaving the Kurdish and Shiite regions with greater autonomy over their security and civil affairs. British and other non-American contingents will operate with local military units in the regions they now control south of Baghdad.
This is the broad upshot of the high-powered conference President George W. Bush called this week of his top team – Vice President Dick Cheney, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of state Colin Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
The US civil administrator Iraq, Paul Bremer, flew in at short notice, canceling an appointment in Baghdad with Polish premier Leszek Miller, who had been inspecting the important Polish peacekeeping contingent in control of a large belt of the country south of Baghdad.
No sooner was the US administrator gone, when the current president of the Iraqi Governing Council, Jalal Talabani, advanced his own concepts for changes in the interim ruling body. As chief of one of the two largest Iraqi Kurdish groups, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), his views carry weight.
He was whistling in the wind. Contrary to media reports, US leaders were not primarily concerned with transferring broader political and security powers to the Iraqis at this time. DEKBA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Washington say those reports were put out to mask the real substance of the White House deliberations. Their most important decisions were to launch without delay an aggressive military campaign to assert control of and secure Baghdad and to wage an ideological war that will wrest Falluja from the grasp of pro-Saddam forces as the pivot of their Sunni Triangle power base.
American officials in Washington and senior men on the spot – Bremer, Head of Central Command General John Abizaid and Iraq ground forces commander, Lieut. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez – are under no illusion. They are marching into one of the most decisive stages of the war for Iraq from a position of inferiority.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and intelligence experts cite three reasons for the cards being stacked against the United States at this point:
Enemy intelligence is more adaptable to ongoing circumstances than the undercover resources available to the coalition. It is better oriented to precisely choosing key objectives that could potentially swing the conflict round in favor of the deposed regime, mainly because it is fed from foreign intelligence sources.
Tactically, the US administration’s hands in Iraq are tied by its strategic linkage to regional and global interests. This linkage needs to be set aside long enough for the Americans to pull ahead and prevail in Iraq. As matters stand, the enemy is taking advantage of the Bush government’s divided attention to get under its guard.
Like shadows in the dark, enemy commanders adapt flexibly and swiftly to changing military and political situations on the ground. Small mobile pro-Saddam units take advantage of their intimate knowledge of the terrain. US forces find it hard to beat off their hit-and-run tactics.
US policy-makers are fully aware of their Achilles heels in Iraq but, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Washington’s sources, while broadly divided on how to handle Saddam’s challenge, have reached consensus on the following five steps.
Kurdish leaders in the north and Shiite leaders in the south will take charge of internal security matters and civil affairs. Local Iraqi and, if available, non-American, military forces – British, Polish, Ukrainian and Italian contingents operating in the south – will stay where they are now.
The bulk of American troop strength in the north and south will be pulled together into the Iraqi heartland, centering on Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle flashpoints. This redeployment will mass most of the 125,000-strong American force in central Iraq.
1. and 2. will effectively partition Iraq into four semi-autonomous regions – Kurdish in the north, Shiite in the center and south of Baghdad, British-controlled in the southwest up to the shores of the strategic Shaat al-Arab waterway and a US-controlled belt in the southeast up to the Iranian border. American forces will retain control of Iraq’s southern oil fields (jointly with the British), central Iraq and the northern oil fields of Kurdistan. Bremer’s civil administration will be the supreme coordinator for the three other areas.
This new order will substantially diminish the powers of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council beyond even its current ineffectiveness. But key councilors such as Shiite leader Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, Talabani and his fellow Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, will remain in decision-making roles.
Efforts will be made to tightly seal the Iraqi-Syrian border which is Saddam’s primary lifeline for supplies of guerrilla manpower, Al Qaeda infiltrators and the funds to underwrite his war activities.
The participants at this week’s White House conference on Iraq came away with the sense, cited by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources, that somewhere along the line, Washington will have no option but to take tough action against Syria. They saw fresh intelligence reports identifying as Syrian nationals most of the suicide bombers who struck with deadly effect in Baghdad, Fallujah, Tikrit, and Ramadi. The reports suggested that Syrian military intelligence, which maintains a massive presence in Lebanon and its capital Beirut, must have known about the departure of Lebanese Al Qaeda operatives for Saudi Arabia on missions of terror.
Intelligence data reaching the White House conference revealed that Syrian president Bashar Assad had given Lebanese president Emil Lahoud and Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah the nod to oust Lebanon’s prime minister, billionaire-entrepreneur Rafik Hariri. Until now, Assad has been wary of laying hands on Hariri, a US favorite and the man Washington believes could promote a pro-American policy in a highly strategic part of the Middle East. But the Syrian leader has now added Lebanon to the list of countries and places where he has no inhibitions about striking against US interests.
This past week, the Assad regime was dragged through the mud in Washington. He has yet to make some response. On Tuesday, November 11, the US Senate followed the House of Representatives’ lead and voted to impose sanctions on Syria, citing its aid to guerrillas fighting US forces in Iraq and support for terrorist groups such as Hizballah. Washington had finally decided that Assad had gone too far.
The above four steps will be paced in accordance with developments unfolding on the ground. Their definitions are phrased loosely enough to give Bush and US officials in Iraq plenty of leeway and flexibility.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources, the wording of this clause reflected some particularly confrontational dialogue between Cheney and Bremer.
The vice president demanded extreme and fast changes in the local administration and policing of Iraq. He was willing to go as far as disbanding the Governing Council.
An emotional Bremer urged approaching change with caution. He opposed disbanding the Governing Council, and also challenged the first four steps. Evacuating US troops from northern and southern Iraq, he argued, made no sense because the Shiites would take over the Rumeila oil field, one of Iraq’s largest, while the Kurds would seize control of the Kirkuk fields in the north. What would the United States be left with, Bremer asked? Fallujah and Baquba? The Iraqis would get the oil and the United States would be stuck with a guerrilla war.
The solution, Bremer maintained, was to divide the administration of Iraq along geographic rather than national and religious lines.
Amid rumors that his job was on line, Bremer went on to address criticism echoing from the national security council that he had erred badly by failing to recruit ex-soldiers from Saddam’s army for service under the American flag – a policy that has since been amended.
Bremer responded wryly by holding up the example of Yasser Arafat, who in 1994 was permitted under interim peace accords with Israel, to locate on the West Bank and Gaza Strip with his army. What happened was that foreign elements rushed to supply him with the weapons and logistical support he needed to launch an “uprising” six years later.
“Did that prevent a terrorist war inside Israel?” Bremer asked and went on to maintain: If the United States had recruited Saddam’s army as soon as major combat died down, his guerrillas would have launched themselves against US forces much earlier and inflicted many more American casualties.
Bush’s top team finally agreed that Bremer would return to Baghdad with a bag of flexible options with regard to the Governing Council. In general, he would try and work in harness with a small group of Iraqi councilors prepared to shoulder clearly-defined areas of responsibility. The future of a permanent Iraqi government and elections would be settled at a later stage. The top priority for now would be to crush the guerrilla campaign, to stop the daily bloodletting of coalition troops and damp down any Iraqi illusions of a possible comeback by Saddam Hussein. To this end, American troops will be gathered in from the northern and southern regions and concentrated in Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle.