Chirac Plants Hurdle on US Road to Fallujah

By Sunday, October 2, 5,000 US and Iraqi troops had broken the back of the insurgent stronghold in Samarra. In one of the biggest military operations since Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, they claim control of the strategic town although there is much collateral damage.
If consolidated, the Samarra victory would greatly improve the US military score in Iraq since the fall of Baghdad. Out of six major engagements in seven months, only one ended in a clear victory, the August 2004 campaign against radical Shiite Moqtada Sadr’s Mehdi Army in the Shiite cities of Najef, Kufa and Karbala south of Baghdad. Sadr himself is reported by our Iraqi sources to be living under the protection of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani at his residence for fear of assassins.
The other six rounds of fighting were indecisive.
This trend of unfinished battles was set when President George W. Bush cut short the important April 2004 offensive to wrest Fallujah from the hands of insurgents and terrorists after US generals in Iraq warned him of the high cost in American and Iraqi lives.
The same pattern recurred in the campaigns fought between April and July for the capture of the lawless al Qaim border region abutting Syria and Jordan, for Haditha and in Anbar province. These places lie across the routes of Arab and al Qaeda fighters infiltrating Iraq. None succeeded in checking the influx.
Moreover, spilling over into their second month are battles to quell two Baghdad trouble spots, the sprawling Shiite Sadr City slum and the Iraqi-Palestinian guerrilla stronghold in the center of the capital. Insurgents also still control the Sunni Triangle towns of Baqouba, Balad and Ramadi despite several US Marine operations to dislodge them.
Halted in midstream last month was the American operation in the western Iraqi city of Tel Afar. Here, for the first time, US forces took on an ethnic minority. While al Qaeda terrorists use the town as a wayside station from Syria, word reached US intelligence that Turkomen terrorist and smuggling cells, as well as Syria and Iran, were running incoming anti-US combatants into Iraq through their ancestral underground corridors. Shiite Muslims, especially, use their rambling family and smuggling ties from as far as the northern Iranian town of Tabriz and eastern Syrian Al-Azur.
The American forces called off their offensive at the crucial point. They backed off when Ankara first protested then promised to make the Turkomen Popular Front’s militia honor its undertaking to halt the smuggling. This arrangement is unlikely to hold up. The Turkomens’ smuggling routes have passed down from generation to generation and will not be given up easily.
At the same time, US military action is about to intensify in the wake of the declared US-Iraqi government vow to take over Iraq’s rebel-held points by the end of October. The final preparations brought General John Abizaid, Iraq war and global anti-terror campaign commander, to Baqouba last week on an unannounced visit.
According to debkafile‘s military sources, he came to select the offensive’s starting point. Baqouba is close to the Iranian border and therefore on the supply route of foreign reinforcements from Iran. Its capture would cut off the Sunni Triangle from this key route. Nonetheless, General Abizaid opted to go first for Samarra because it is Fallujah’s primary logistical link and its fall would pave the way for the main assault on Fallujah itself.
Abizaid’s tactical reasoning ran as follows: To subdue and capture Fallujah – and defeat the insurgent force of 3,000-4,000 guerrillas, including 500-700 followers of the al Qaeda terrorist Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi based there – it is essential to cut the town off on two sides, from the Syrian border and Samarra.
To achieve the first, an accommodation with Damascus is in the works. On September 11, Peter Rodman of the Pentagon and Brig.-Gen Mark Kimmit visited Damascus openly to meeting Syrian President Bashar Assad. On the quiet, they got together with the Syrian deputy chief of staff Gen. Ali Habib. On September 28-29, the first US-Iraqi military delegation ever arrived in Damascus to work out the specifics of a bilateral accord for sealing the Syrian border to illicit traffic.
According to debkafile‘s military sources, if and when that accord can be made to work and Samarra is captured, the US-Iraqi assault on Fallujah may begin.
French snag.
On Thursday, September 30, an unforeseen occurrence laid bare a potential threat to this prognosis. A convoy of white Iraqi Nissen trucks, the favored vehicle for smugglers of people and illegal freight from Syria, was sighted northeast of Haditha heading along the Euphrates bank towards the Syrian border town of Abu Kamal, an al Qaeda-Baath depot for fighters infiltrating Iraq. US warplanes on constant patrol over the border region bombed the convoy, set some of the vehicles on fire and left six Iraqis dead.
Next day, Friday, October 1, Phillippe Evanno, aide to French parliamentarian Didier Julia, called an urgent news conference in Damascus with bad news; the convoy just bombed by the Americans was ferrying to Syria Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, the two French journalists taken hostage in Iraq on August 28. They had been freed, he explained, after being handed over by their abductors, the Islamic Army of Iraq, to another Iraqi guerrilla group.
debkafile reports that in today’s Iraq such handovers are in fact cash sales, the money put up in this case most probably by the French government or some semi-official French organization. Evanno claimed there were two convoys; a French mediator Phillippe Brett drove in one and the two hostages were in the second. After the American bombardment, US troops surrounded the damaged vehicles. The passengers, including the two journalists fled and have not been heard of since.
Initially the French government and US military officials denied knowledge of this incident. However, on October 2, French foreign minister Michel Barnier criticized “unofficial negotiators” led by Julia for frustrating government efforts to gain the two hostages’ release.
The story behind this tale is revealed here by debkafile‘s counter-terror sources.
Immediately after Malbrunot and Chesnot were abducted, President Jacques Chirac launched an intense effort to secure their freedom. At the same time, he saw a chance not only of circumventing the US authorities in Baghdad, but torpedoing a potential Washington-Damascus rapprochement over joint military border action. To this end he took three steps:
1. He formed a special panel at the Elysee Palace of French intelligence officers and diplomatic advisers with good connections in Arab countries, such as the former UN secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who is well remembered in Washington for his contribution to the 1993 American military debacle in Somalia and the 1995 disruptions he staged in Bosnia with French intelligence.
A second panel went up in the French foreign ministry.
Both panels were mandated to explore every channel and connection for securing the two journalists’ release with the exception of American officials in Washington or Baghdad and circles identified with the Iyad Allawi government.
2. On August 31, Chirac flew to the Black Sea resort of Sochi to bid for help from Russian president Vladimir Putin and visiting German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. He left empty-handed. Nonetheless, he never once appealed to the US president, or turned to American diplomats, military or intelligence for assistance.
3. The French government tried broadcasting an appeal for help throughout its extensive web of connections in Arab countries, Iran and the extremist Muslim world, including the Hizballah terrorist group. When this appeal failed to bring any response, Paris established a semi-official forward rescue command in Damascus hoping to reach the hostage-takers through Syrian military intelligence’s close links with the Baath guerrilla officers and al Qaeda operatives organizing the clandestine transfer of fighters and arms into Iraq.
This command was staffed by Didier Julia, Philippe Brett and Philippe Evanno.
They got as far as buying the release of the two Frenchmen with a hefty payout to a Baath guerrilla group fighting in Fallujah. According to our sources, the deal was a package that also covered running the men out to Syria through one of the guerrillas’ smuggling routes.
However, when the American air force put paid to the scheme by raiding the departing convoy on its way to Syria, Paris disowned the Damascus forward command and accused the “unofficial negotiators” of doing more harm than good.
Had they brought it off, they would have delivered to Chirac four impressive objectives in his dispute with Bush over Iraq.
A. France would have shown the world it can outdo the Americans and the Allawi government in settling crises in Iraq by negotiating with insurgents instead of waging bloody war against them. This demonstration was intended to discredit Bush’s Iraq policies and hurt his re-election prospects.
B. Paris would not only have granted the Iraqi Baath guerrillas and their al Qaeda allies recognition as legitimate negotiating partners but also granted legitimacy to the illicit Syria-Iraq-Syria smuggling routes bringing men and arms to bolster the anti-US warfront in Iraq.
C. The purported transfer of the French hostages across the Iraqi-Syrian border was timed to coincide with the most promising US-Iraqi initiative thus far to co-opt Syria to a joint military effort for sealing that border to illegal and hostile infiltrations. This setback to Washington’s plans would have seriously delayed the final offensive to recover Fallujah from insurgent-terrorist control.
D. It would also have delivered a setback to US-Syrian relations as a whole, showing up factions of Syrian military intelligence as more than willing to pitch in on any anti-American actions. Washington would have had to accept that any deal with Damascus was full of dangerous holes.
By bombing the French-sponsored Baath guerrilla convoy on its way to Syria, American warplanes whipped these assets out of the French president’s grasp. But still up in the air is the fate of the two French hostages, as is also the date of the US-Iraq Fallujah offensive. The two issues however are no longer intertwined.

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