Bush Told in Baghdad: Guerrillas Taking Heavy Losses, Retreating from Sunni Triangle

US ground forces commander in Iraq, Lt.-Gen. Ricardo Sanchez suffered the misfortune of mistimed optimism. Saturday, November 29, he told a news briefing that the number of Iraqi attacks had dropped by 30 percent in November. No sooner had a spoken then a succession of five deadly ambushes left 12 non-Americans, one American civilian and two 3rd Armored Divisions troops dead between Saturday and Sunday morning. Seven were members of an 8-member Spanish Intelligence team on the road from Najef to Baghdad, two Japanese diplomats who had just left Tikrit after attending a reconstruction aid conference, two Korean electricians in the same region, one American civilian and one Colombian contractor near Balad.
The American fatalities were claimed by a rocket-propelled grenade attack on their convoy near the Iraqi-Syrian border town of Husaybah.
In just a few hours, November’s death toll in Iraq shot up to 115, the highest since May.
Still, Gen. Sanchez was technically correct. November saw 30pc less attacks by Iraqi insurgents and their foreign helpers. On the other hand, it was the bloodiest in terms of coalition casualties – up 35pc – meaning enemy assaults were fewer but more effective.
debkafile‘s military sources reveal that of the two hours, 32 minutes President George W. Bush spent in Baghdad on his surprise Thanksgiving trip last Thursday, November 27, he visited the troops for one hour. Away from the cameras, he was closeted very privately for another hour with US and military commanders in Iraq and the remaining half hour with four members of the interim Iraq Governing Council.
Given the news of the 30pc decline in guerilla attacks in November, Bush was also handed four intelligence assessments recording shifts in the Iraqi-US balance. They are revealed here for the first time by debkafile‘s military sources:
1. Iraqi guerrilla commanders find it much harder to execute their original hit-and-run tactics against large American military convoys which are now much better defended, often with air cover. Small convoys, lone vehicles and soft targets are easier prey.
2. US forces are now capturing Iraqi and foreign fighters in large numbers. In recent weeks, more than 1,100 have been killed or captured in US military raids, draining off around one-fifth of the total estimated pro-Saddam strength of 5,000 fighting men.
3. Iraqi insurgent forces used the just-ended Ramadan month to regroup and review strategy and are now striving for two objectives: a) creating a sympathetic base among the general population to support combatants; b) relocating their flashpoint center out of the Sunni Triangle – where the US 4th Division has gained familiarity with the territory and the forces fighting there – to the Kurdish and Shiite regions of the north and center-south.
The US President also heard that pro-Saddam tacticians found it necessary to reorient their confrontation with US forces because they are worried by the progress made in the two outer regions towards firm local government institutions and systems, unlike the battle-torn Sunni area north of Baghdad. They fear Washington might turn away from a unified Iraq and opt for a three-state solution. The Kurdish and the Shiite states would end up with Iraq’s oil riches. The US would dump the Sunni state and redeploy in defensive array in the other two.
This fear was exacerbated by an article that Saddam Hussein and his men, who though on the run, must have heard about.
“Divide Iraq into Three States – Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds” is the title of the article appearing in The New York Times article of November 26, the day before Thanksgiving. It was written by Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the influential Council of Foreign Relations, and looks like a trial balloon by the Bush administration to see how the concept of partition goes down with American, Arab and European opinion.
4. Saddam Hussein’s supporters are also worried about developments unfolding in two key regions of the country:
Mosul: Former Iraqi defense minister Gen. Sultan Hashem, who is reported to have played ball with the Americans since well before the invasion, has obeyed the promptings of US administrator Paul Bremer and gone back to his Tai tribe – a large and important group that is spread out in territory ranging from Mosul in the east to the Iraqi-Syrian border in the west. Sections of important oil pipelines run through these lands. The Tai and other tribes in this area are not on good terms with the Sunni tribes of the Tikrit-Falluja region, the backbone of Saddam’s following. It is hoped that ex-general Hashem will help US efforts to stabilize this key strategic region. According to debkafile‘s military sources, other Sunni tribes have also been conscripted by means of substantial cash incentives and promises of more to come for security maintenance of the oil pipe network running through their lands.
South and Shiite Region: The US administration has managed to rein in the most unstable Shiite element, the fiery young Seyed Moqtada Sadr, the boss of the Shiite quarters of Baghdad who spearheaded the opposition to Shiite leaders cooperating with the Americans. Bremer has cultivated friendly relations with the two most eminent Shiite leaders, the Grand Ayatollah Sistani and Mohsein al-Hakim, the Shiite representative on the interim Governing Council. Both have acquired an interest in keeping the American civilian and military presence in the country for as long as possible.
While the US President was encouraged by the progress report he received during his brief stay at Baghdad airport, as soon as he left, Saddam’s guerrilla forces redoubled their offensive. Two days later, on Saturday, November 29, they singled out targets near the Iraqi-Syrian border and around the Shiite holy city of Najef, as well as the Sunni Triangle, to demonstrate the lengthened extent of their reach. On the last day of November, US forces struck a counter-blow to even the score. Men of a 4th infantry division convoy armed with heavy tanks and helicopters confronted Saddam’s guerrillas ready to mount an ambush in Samara. They killed 46 guerrillas and captured eight, losing five American wounded.

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