Fallujah Raids Administer Severe Jolt to US Transition Plan

The audacious Iraqi guerrilla assaults Saturday, February 14, on Iraqi Civil Defense Corps and mayoral compounds in Fallujah, 30 miles west of Baghdad, were a disastrous setback for US plans to smoothly transfer sovereignty into Iraq hands by June 30, according to debkafile‘s military analysts. President George W. Bush, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, US administrator Paul Bremer and chief of central command Gen. John Abizaid, may have to rethink their plans, after some 70 guerrillas – Iraqis, al Qaeda, Hizballah and Lebanese Palestinians – carried out a textbook military raid, leaving some 23 dead, most of them Iraqi ICDC officers, and 30 injured. This confrontation, the most violent since men of the US 4th Division fought a Fedayeen Saddam force under Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri’s son Muhammed, in Samarra on November 30, raised the death toll among members and would-be recruits of the new Iraqi security forces to 150 in seven days.
The assailants, clad in New Iraqi Army officers’ uniforms, reached their targets in three cars and on several motorcycles. Snipers were posted on surrounding rooftops, enabling the guerilla force to fire automatic weapons and rockets from four directions. No coalition troops were in sight, only US military aircraft overhead. The mayoral compound was hit by mortar fire, rockets and petrol bombs.
Petrol bombs were also hurled at wounded victims outside the ICDC station before the guerrillas yelling “God is great!” stormed the building, lobbed grenades into room after room and freed some 100 detainees. The entire episode took no more than an hour.
Saturday’s attack was the sequel to a rooftop automatic rifle-rocket ambush two days earlier at the same spot against Gen. Abizaid’s convoy. He escaped harm by a hair’s breadth. The general discounted suggestions that the insurgents were tipped off about his movements and insisted it was a random attack.
debkafile‘s sources are convinced that the insurgents’ field intelligence is highly effective. They knew they could count on the skies over Fallujah being clear of US aircraft when they posted dozens of snipers on surrounding roofs to waylay Abizaid’s convoy. Their timing was off by seconds but neither the US forces securing the general’s party nor the Iraqi forces guarding the zone opened fire on the assailants or gave chase when they fled.
On that same Thursday, February 12, the general inspected new US military deployments in Baghdad and Balad. In the capital, the US troop presence is being reduced inside the city and responsibility for security handed over to the newly-created Iraqi security forces, the model for other cities. American troops will remain in charge of city environs and the intercity road network. The US 1st Calvary Division which is taking over from the 1st Armored division will operate out of eight new bases going up around Baghdad and one in the city center.
Because of this redeployment, air cover for the Abizaid convoy was absent last Thursday. The 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment commander was anxious to obey to the letter the orders he had received to delegate security in Fallujah to local Iraqi security forces.
A day later, when the general landed in Qatar, fresh from his near escape from Iraqi insurgent guns, he stressed the importance of weaning the Iraqis from American assistance. “We have to take risks to a certain extent by taking our hands off the control,” he said in an interview. “It is their country, it’s their future. Our job is to help them help themselves.”
This statement and the beginning of US redeployment outside Iraqi cities are indications that the White House has resolved the debate going on in Washington since mid-November over whether the American army should pull back from Iraqi towns or maintain a steadying presence in their streets. As we reported on November 28, Paul Bremer and the presidential envoy Robert Blackwill favored the second option, while the generals, led by Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of Iraqi ground forces, advocated US military disengagement from Iraq’s population and urban centers. The resolution of this argument on the side of the generals triggered the Fallujah riposte from the joint pro-Saddam insurgent-al Qaeda command in Iraq shortly after American troops pulled out of the sector as per their orders.
The assault was also a rejoinder to the discovery in Baghdad of a letter purportedly written by senior al Qaeda operations aide, Musab Zarqawi, who recommended stirring up sectarian strife between Shiite and Sunnis to drive the Americans out of Iraq. Two days later, the US command doubled the price on his head to $10m.
While various intelligence experts argued over the authenticity of the Zarqawi letter, they were of one mind that the enemy would respond to it without fail, most probably by violent means.
That the Fallujah attack signified this response is borne out, according to debkafile‘s intelligence sources, by the fact that some of the assailants came from the new medressas in the city which have been filling up with al Qaeda and Saudi combatants since late last year. The Iraqi security officers put up only the most cursory resistance and took heavy casualties before most of them turned tail. Not a single American soldier was to be seen and the US planes overhead did not bring reinforcements or otherwise assist the embattled Iraq force.
The Iraqi side suffered a humiliating defeat in Fallujah, raising questions about the local forces’ preparedness to assume the responsibility the Americans are anxious to devolve on them. General Abizaid himself commented last Thursday, “Obviously they are not fully trained, They’re not ready.”
But will Iraqi troops ever be ready to stand up and fight a hostile coalition of Iraqis, al Qaeda and Arab fighters from Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait? The freedom these legions enjoy to rampage through Iraq’s city centers places a large question mark over the basic US premises underlying the timeline for handing the government over to Iraqis and postponing elections until next year, as advised by a UN team of experts. The deployment of US forces outside cities may have to be reconsidered if the June 30 deadline is to be fulfilled.

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