The new Iraqi army scored two important victories this week – one near Baqouba in Diala Province and the second in the northern city of Mosul. For the first time, Iraqi troops carried out successful proactive operations targeting insurgent and terrorist strongholds without US military support.
The 3rd Iraqi Brigade under the command of Brig. Gen. Khaidar Ibrahim successfully stormed the Diyala provincial command center shared by Iraqi guerilla units, and operational cells of Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s al Qaeda wing and its affiliate Ansar al Islam. After securing their target, they handed 50 prisoners belonging to all three groups to US intelligence for interrogation.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources who disclosed this episode name the most important captive as Hamim Azawi, leader of a large guerrilla band about a hundred strong which terrorized the main northbound Baqouba-Kirkuk highway and its environs. Under their cover, guerrillas were able to slip through to the Kurdish enclave and blow up Kirkuk’s oil installations. Among them were the men who for months on end organized the assassinations of many Iraqi provincial government officials and wholesale massacres of Iraqi soldiers and police.
In Mosul, commandos of the Iraqi army’s “Wolves Brigade,” led by Brig. Gen. Abu Walid, caught the enemy by surprise. It is made up of largely Shiite fighters including exiles returned home and the first combatants trained in Hungary as part of a NATO project. They battled their way through for three days – from Monday, March 21 to Wednesday, March 23 – and finally recaptured the Sunni southwestern part of Iraq’s third largest city of the north, home to 2 million, more than half of whom are Sunni Muslims. The northern districts of this ethnically mixed city are Kurdish, but the Sunni section had been occupied for months by the same coalition of Iraqi insurgents, al Qaeda and Ansar al Islam terrorists, as were found in Diyala. Here too many prisoners were taken.
Mosul powder keg defused
Iraqi forces chalked up a second first: Never before in the Iraq war had they taken a whole section of a major city without American military aid.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, they rounded up as many as 300 terrorists, among them Saudis, Algerians and Yemenis. But their most important catch was 11 Syrian intelligence officers ranging from captain to colonel. All were on active service with Syrian intelligence services and led operations against the Iraqi government and American forces.
While the Syrian officers were transferred to Baghdad for questioning, the men serving under their command signed confessions and provided detailed descriptions of the camps and training facilities in Syria where they were prepared for combat in Iraq.
Another terrorist group linked to Zarqawi, Ansar al Sunna, this week released a new videotape called “Healing for the Heart”, a sort of morale-booster effort documenting successful raids in different parts of Iraq. The tape was badly, even amateurishly, produced – unlike previous tapes. Close examination indicated that most of the footage was pieced together from recycled images of events filmed in late 2003 or early 2004. This attempt to cheer the ranks in fact betrayed the sorry state of al Qaeda’s Iraq infrastructure and its head, Zarqawi.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terror sources report that in the last 24 hours, panic-stricken exchanges are building up on Iraqi Islamist Websites and communications channels, mostly questions about the fate of comrades.
Syria itself provided the most damaging evidence of its complicity in the anti-American Iraqi insurgency. This week, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and counter-terror sources reveal that American investigators wound up their questioning of Saddam Hussein’s half-brother Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hasan al-Tikriti.
Six of diamonds and No. 36 on the US pack of 55 cards, Sabawi was head of Iraqi intelligence in the 1991 Gulf War, then director of Iraq’s notorious security services until 1996 when he was appointed senior presidential aide to Saddam.
On the night of February 14, the Syrians picked him up just hours after the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in Beirut. They found him at the base given him in the northeastern Syrian town of Hasakah for directing and financing the Iraqi Baath guerrilla revolt against US forces. Accused of involvement in the Hariri assassination and the Tel Aviv nightclub bombing, Damascus was under such extreme pressure that it made the mistake of handing Sabawi over.
Damascus incriminates self
On February 27, they bundled him across the Iraqi border into the arms of the Americans after informing them he was theirs to collect. This amounted to a Syrian confession that they had been harboring senior Baathist officials and the high-profile director of the anti-American insurgency in Iraq. But letting him spill his incriminating story in detail demonstrated how deeply the Syrian government and intelligence were confused and panicked by losing their positions in Lebanon.
The interrogation was led by the Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani‘s KUP intelligence chief Kosrut Rasul, the operative who led the Americans to Saddam Hussein’s hideout in December 2003.
Sabawi signed two signed statements.
In the first, he related how after the fall of Baghdad to the US army in April 2003, Saddam’s men handed him $300 m and told him to organize a guerrilla campaign from Syria. He gave his interrogators a list of the senior Syrian politicians and military brass who were on the take to make available facilities for the training of combatants, equipping them and transferring them into Iraq.
He gave away the location of the central depot Syrian military intelligence had set up in Deir al-Azur on the Euphrates River opposite Iraq’s al Qaim province for smuggling guerilla fighters, weapons and explosives into Iraq.
This depot was guarded night and day by Syrian troops.
The second Sabawi confession covered his years in the service of his half-brother. Here are some choice highlights:
- He personally sentenced to death 600 Iraqi dissidents then in prison for standing up to Saddam’s Baath regime.
- He was personally responsible for the murder, some by poisoning, of four Iraqi foreign ministers, among them Shazel Taqa, who was poisoned to death during a visit to Morocco in 1974.
- On a visit to Abu Ghraib prison in 1982, Sabawi ordered and was present at the execution of 84 Iraqis.
- In 1991, after Iraq invaded Kuwait, he took possession of 500 new Mercedes vehicles.
This week, Iraqi authorities began hunting down and rounding up Sabawi’s contacts in the country, his accessories in pursuing the campaign against US forces and Iraqi authorities.