The minute secretary of state Colin Powell departs the region empty-handed, Washington’s Middle East foes – Iran, Iraq, Syria, Hizballah and the Palestinians – are set to initiate coordinated military action with a view to reducing the United States to a powerless spectator.
Powell meets Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat Friday and Saturday, April 12 and 13. His chances of bringing them anywhere near a ceasefire are generally rated nil – hence the pessimistic scenario seen by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources.
By now it is clear that the calls US President George W. Bush keeps on broadcasting, for Israel to end its Operation Defense Shield against terror strongholds in Palestinian cities, is no more than lip-service to America’s putative Arab allies. Even if Sharon pulls the army back all the way to pre-September 28, 2000 lines – which he has promised not to do until “every last grain of terror is swept away”- Washington is under no illusion that the Palestinian leader will lift a finger to stop the suicide attacks against Israel, or the Hizballah will desist from its hourly mortar- rocket barrages.
While openly slamming Sharon, the Bush team has not missed the burgeoning operational partnership between Palestinians and Hizballah and their combined buildup with Iraq and Iran – with Syria’s tacit blessing – for military action. This bloc’s first goal is to ward off a US military assault on Iraq, while at the same time rocking pro-American Arab regimes by rousing violent anti-government demonstrations in their cities.
After that, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s US and Israeli intelligence sources, Iran and Iraq mean to stoke Middle East tensions, making sure that they strike first before America fires a shot in its campaign against Baghdad. This strike is expected to take the form of an Iraqi missile attack on Israel.
Thursday, April 11, hours before Powell’s landing in Israel, the Iranian foreign minister turned up in Damascus. At about the same time, Sharon was telling a Fox TV interviewer that Arafat is keeping an open channel of communication to Saddam, whom he accused of smuggling weapons to the Palestinians through Jordan and across the Dead Sea.
The point of maximum danger will arrive at the end of April. The countdown towards that moment begins Monday, April 15, when the Iranian army and Revolutionary Guards begin a large-scale five-day military exercise called “Wadat”, or “Unity” in the Persian Gulf.
Iranian naval and air units will rehearse the seizure of the strategic Straits of Hormuz and impose a mock blockade on Gulf oil shipping bound for Western and Japanese ports through the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. They will also practice amphibious landings on the islands of Abu Musa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb in the mouth of Straits of Hormuz.
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 49, 15 February 2002).
About 50,000 soldiers – paratroops, marines, naval commandos and members of amphibious armored units – are gathered at the port of Bandar Abbas, with a fleet of landing craft, fast missile boats, submarines and aircraft at their disposal. These units will rehearse the forcible seizure of the Gulf islands.
Iran’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Khamenei and its president, Mohammed Khatami, will use the occasion of a visit to the troops, to announce Iran is joining the Iraq oil embargo announced this week against pro-Israeli countries, primarily the United States. They will also place the Iranian units exercising in the Gulf on supreme alert to meet any regional military threat, explaining that the ongoing Palestinian-Israel showdown may call for a response.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources, Iran last week secretly opened a permanent military liaison office in Baghdad to align Iranian military movements in the Gulf with the Iraqi general staff. Iraq also granted passage through its airspace to Iranian military aircraft heading to Syria. The Tehran-Damascus route via Iraqi air space has been operating now for nearly a month. Iranian military flights have been granted landing and refueling rights at Iraqi air bases in case Syria or the Hizballah come under Israeli or US attack.
There are angles to the new partnership between the former foes, Iraq and Iran, aside from the use of Baghdad as a coordination center or transit point for Iranian military flights to Damascus. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report that right after the US vice president Dick Cheney phoned Syrian president Bashar Assad earlier this week – to ask him to persuade the Hizbollah to call off its daily attacks against Israeli forces and towns – Iraqi vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan popped up in the Syrian capital. Assad and Ramadan put their heads together on a division of tasks in the event of a regional war and ways of implementing the secret Syrian-Iraqi military pacts signed last summer.
Under one key provision, Syrian air force units may transfer to Iraqi air bases if their own facilities are attacked by Israel – and vice versa.
Assad’s next secret visitor was Hizballah secretary-general Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. He came to Damascus with an Iranian mandate to petition the Syrian leader for permission to escalate the assault on Israel – first by switching to the heavier 120 mm artillery, more advanced Katyusha rockets, and eventually also short-range Iranian surface-to-surface missiles, to replace the anti-tank missiles and mortars Hizballah has been fielding.
The Hizballah leader also requested permission to shoot missiles from Lebanon at Israeli targets on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights, which Syria lost in the 1967 war.
Assad, who told Cheney he had no influence with the Hizballah, granted its leader both requests, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources.
Nasrallah was therefore able to break a long-standing rule. Never before has territory claimed by Syria come under missile attack from Lebanon. Washington and Israel can hardly complain if the Lebanese attack the Golan with permission from Damascus. They were also being told that the Shiite extremist group, self-declared champion of Lebanese national interests and the Palestinian cause, has committed itself totally to fighting in Syria’s wars.
No sooner was Nasrallah back in Beirut than his heavy artillery began pounding Israel and rockets flew over the northern Golan Heights,
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources describe the Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus-Beirut-Palestinian bloc’s alignment as planned down to the smallest detail.
Iran will wrap up its military exercise and declare an oil embargo – as arranged – after which Iranian transports will begin ferrying ammunition, shells and missiles to Hizballah, via the military section of Damascus international airport. These deliveries will keep the daily war against Israel well fueled. At the same time, the Palestinians will stet up their suicide attacks against Israel, either directly or with outside help. (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 55, April 5, 2002)
When the violence has been wound to its highest pitch, Iraq will step in with a dramatic and dangerous move. From April 24, Israel stands in grave danger of an Iraqi missile attack, launched for the sake of saving the Palestinians. This threat was signaled by Qusai Hussein, Saddam’s son and commander of the elite Republican Guards, when he declared on Wednesday, April 10: “The Iraqi people is ready to fight Israel alongside the Palestinians, but its geographical location makes it hard to join the struggle… Still, the Jews know that their doom will come from Babylon.”
Now more than ever, with the Palestinians in dire straits, Iraqi leaders must make good on their high-flown pledges of aid, else the Palestinian option in which Saddam has invested and held as a reserve resource will be dissipated. The level of rhetoric is escalating in the last couple of days. Sharon appears to be aware of Saddam’s decision. He is therefore laying stress on exposing Arafat’s operational links with the Hizballah and with Baghdad.
The top item on the agenda of his talks Friday, April 12, with secretary Powell, is most likely to be how Israel will retaliate for an Iraqi missile strike or, put another way, the strength of Israel’s deterrent.