Fear Assad Even When He Brings Gifts …

The Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri episode is an example of a US ball neatly shot back into the American court.

Wednesday, April 23, Iraqi security spokesmen reported that Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, 66, Saddam Hussein‘s vice president who, in 2003 took the Iraqi Sunni Baath underground to fight the invading US Army, was in custody in Baghdad.

This bombshell caught the US military in the Iraqi capital wrong footed. “At this point, we can say that he is not in coalition custody and we have no reports that he was captured by Iraqi security forces either” – was the wary response to the end-result of a scheme which fell flat.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East sources, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Baghdad Sunday, April 23, she surprised her Iraqi hosts with a plan to dig al Douri out of his Syrian base with the help of a file loaded with compromising intelligence data about al-Douri’s nefarious doings in Syria.

It was designed to give the Maliki government a leg up while showing president Bashar Assad up in the worst possible light.

She brought with her the American intelligence officers who had tracked Saddam’s closest crony during his years of pulling the strings of the Iraqi Sunni insurgency; they produced as evidence his many taped phone conversations with contacts in Syria and Iraq.

Al Douri’s voice was heard talking to the commandants of the training camps he ran in Syria for suicide fighters and with the guerrilla network chiefs in Iraq, specifying the size of the next intake of suicide trainees, the contingent of graduates to be spirited next into Iraq and the numbers to be held in reserve.


He dispatched 110 suicide killers per month into Iraq


It emerged from his own statistics that Izzat Ibrahim had been pumping some 110 well-trained suicide trainees into Iraq every month.

The taped conversations betrayed the sums transferred from Middle East and Persian Gulf banks to Syria for funding Baath insurgent terrorist operations in Iraq. The money was clearly deposited first in Syrian banks before it was smuggled into Iraq. Only a very small portion went directly to Iraqi banks.

Another part of the intelligence data Rice brought with her illustrated how the structure of the Baathist insurgent movement had evolved from its original 2004-2006 consistency. Then it was manned solely by former army personnel and officers of the various Baath security bodies. Today, the units are a melange of Iraqi and Arab fighters from different countries – Egypt, Yemen, Algeria, Morocco and Palestinians – some with no Iraqi members at all.

This manpower structure closely resembles al Qaeda’s networks in Iraq.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Baghdad report that the plan Rice put before Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki went like this:

Maliki and his aides, aided by US intelligence officers, would compile a secret Note to the Syrian president, fortified by parts of the above intelligence data to indicate that the Baghdad government possessed plenty of incriminating information against Damascus. The note would end with a demand by the signatory, Maliki, that Assad place Izzat Ibrahim under arrest and extradite him to Baghdad.

They agreed that the letter should be muscular in tone, more like a threat than any Iraqi government communication since Saddam Hussein’s passing. Assad would be given to understand that Iraq was fast emerging from its operational weakness and, by the end of the year, empowered by 700,000 men under arms, police and security personnel; in three years, the Iraqi armed forces would number 13 combat divisions, most of them armored. The Syrian ruler would therefore be well advised to give up the “Iranian game” he was playing of giving insurgents sanctuaries from which to terrorize Iraq with impunity.


Assad jumps the gun on Rice


Condoleezza Rice believed that handing Izzat Ibrahim into Baghdad’s custody would stiffen the Maliki administration with some badly-needed extra weight after its botched military operation against militias in Basra earlier this month.

Putting the squeeze on Assad might above all persuade him to cool his close ties with Tehran and back away from supporting the anti-US forces in Iraq and Lebanon and the hard-line Palestinians.

But before Baghdad had a chance to post its strong Note, Assad jumped the gun.

On April 22, Damascus transmitted a message through intelligence conduits informing the Maliki government that Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri and party had been “captured,” and sent across the border into Iraq.

A full description of al-Douri’s present appearance and that of his aides was helpfully appended to the message, their apparel, the license plates of their vehicles, the numbers of their cell and satellite phones and the direction they had taken inside Iraq.

The Syrian ruler had typically left a sting in the tail of his “gesture.”

The Iraqi special forces team from Baghdad, which the next day, April 23, intercepted the incoming party at Hamrin between the provinces of Salahuddin and Kirkuk north of Baghdad, found themselves unable to pick out al-Douri from the rest of the group. Interrogation of its members produced nothing but protestations that they had never set eyes on him.


Diversionary tactics ahead of congressional disclosures


The baffled Iraqis and Americans were forced to wait for the results of DNA tests to find out what fish has been planted in their net – whether the top gun or a fake foisted on them by Damascus. That al-Douri altered his appearance some years ago with plastic surgery was expected.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources point out the Syrian president proved he had the means to discover Rice’s scheme to confront him before it materialized. And far from cooling his ties with Tehran, he has intensified and deepened the relationship. (See separate article in this issue on the Shiification of Syria’s Alawis)

They also note that he struck with uncharacteristic speed to pre-empt it. Both these mysteries await answers when the man in Iraqi custody is finally identified.

Whether he proves to be the last leader of the Saddam regime still at large or a fake, Assad will still retain control over the Iraqi Baath’s military resources and treasure. He may even have decided to burn al-Douri and replace him with an unknown.

This week found Damascus in a ferment of activity, cooking up events to divert attention from the embarrassing disclosures expected at congressional hearings in Washington about Syria's clandestine nuclear ties with North Korea and the ignominy of his secret plutonium reactor’s destruction by Israeli raiders last September.

Shooting the Rice scheme back as a boomerang was one such diversion.

Another was the series of leaks claiming that Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert had agreed to give up Golan for peace with Syria. This “disclosure” dominated Israel media all week. Olmert kept silent day after day in the face of these leaks and the angry recriminations from inside and outside his government.

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