Four Big Air Bases, 15,000 Troops: For Defending Baghdad and Oil, and Facing Iran

Incoming US Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta spoke his mind in typical salty style ("I'm Italian, what the frick can I tell you," he told NBC News Monday, July 11) when he complained to US and Iraqi generals about the failure of the Baghdad government to state clearly whether it wants US troops to stay in the country beyond the end of this year or not.
However, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources, Panetta was putting on an act for a piece of theatre – whose cast includes the White House and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – to camouflage real understanding.
The overt action hinges on Al-Maliki's non-appointment of a defense minister. When Panetta asked rhetorically, "Do they (the Iraqis) want to have a minister of defense or don't they want to have a minister of defense? Dammit, make a decision," – he knew exactly why this portfolio remains unmanned.
Any Al-Maliki appointment would undoubtedly be obstructed by opposition Sunni, Kurdish and Shiite factions – and that in itself is a reasonable pretext for foot-dragging. But, most of all, the absence of a defense minister suits his book in another respect: it is a device for throwing off US demands to file a formal request for US forces to stay in Iraq, on the one hand, and for setting aside Tehran's demands that he get rid of the US military presence by December 2011, on the other.
Without a defense minister, the government is not competent to decide on the matter. And so Al-Maliki is off the hook for now.
He dug himself more firmly into this position ahead of Panetta's arrival in Baghdad on his first visit as defense secretary Saturday, July 9: Iraq's coalition partners failed to approve a cabinet. The plug was thus pulled on any possible decision one way or the other about the extent and timeline of the US troop pullout from Iraq and Washington was left dangling.
Or so it would seem.

Maliki obeys Tehran's demand for troops to seal the Iraqi-Syrian border

But behind these blinds and maneuvers, Washington and Baghdad had come to an understanding and Tehran was groping for points of vantage.
The day of US defense secretary's arrival in Baghdad, our sources report, Iraqi troops were suddenly pulled out of Baghdad and central Iraq and rushed to the Syrian border. This was done in obedience to a directive from Tehran to seal the Iraqi border against western Iraqi Sunnis and northern Iraqi Kurds sending over agents, fighters, munitions and cash to the Anti-Assad opposition in Syria.
Western military sources monitoring the Iraq-Syria border say they don't recall the Iraq-Syrian border ever being sealed so tightly – even in the times of Saddam Hussein.
The Shiite Al-Maliki thought it did no harm to give Washington an object lesson by demonstrating that he could make the US-established and trained Iraqi army available to Iran and its interests any time he chooses. In this case, he served Tehran's goal to keep its ally Syrian President Bashar Assad safe.
The US defense secretary lost no time in shooting back: Sunday, he voiced "tremendous concern" that, although US combat operations in Iraq officially ended 11 months ago, US soldiers were coming under increasing fire from Iraqi Shiite militias armed by Iran.
In June, 14 US service members were killed in hostile incidents, the highest monthly toll in three years, and at least three more this month.
Then on Monday, Panetta raised the threat threshold by warning that the United States would pursue unilateral action as needed to deal with the hazards American troops in Iraq face from Shiite militias armed by Iran.

Soldiers classed as US "diplomats"

This was Panetta's first threat to wield US military power since he took over as Defense Secretary.
He was warning Tehran not to assume Maliki's obedience in the Syrian case meant that Washington would acquiesce to the further deepening of Iran's military penetration of Iraq. The sealing of the Iraq-Syria border was allowed to go through this time, provided it was understood that the pro-Iranian Shiite militias must desist from upsetting the military accords Panetta concluded in Baghdad.
Any disruptions, he indicated, would incur direct US military force.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources report that, back stage, Secretary Panetta's visit indeed produced secret understandings with Prime Minister Al-Maliki on four aspects of America's post-withdrawal military presence in Iraq. Neither is ready to make any aspect of these understandings public.
1. Whether or not Iraq has an officiating government, the prime minister agreed that 15,000 US troops would be allowed to stay on in Iraq after December 2011. In view of President Barack Obama's pledge to remove every last American soldier from Iraq by the end of this year, the formation staying on was categorized as military trainers, expert advisers and diplomats.
2. The formation will be distributed as follows: 8,000 servicemen labeled US diplomats would be attached to operations command centers housed in secret, secure quarters at the embassy in Baghdad and in US consulates in Iraqi cities, including missions yet to be opened.
Another 7,000 troops were classified as US security officers – 4,000 for protecting "US diplomats" and 3,000 as military instructors. Iraq recently imported massive amounts of arms, mostly American-made tanks and helicopters, in the use of which the selling party is under contract to train the purchasers.
3. These servicemen will in reality be scattered across a vast area stretching from the Kurdistan capital of Erbil in the north to Baghdad in the center, including a presence in the province of Diyala on Iraq's eastern border with Iran.
Clusters will also ensure US military control in the central and western towns of Ramadi, Tikrit, Falluja, Samarra, as well as the northern oil city of Kirkuk and the western Al-Anbar province which abuts Syria and Jordan.

Two of four big US-controlled air bases will face Iran

The US force remaining in Iraq will thus be in position for helping break up civil strife between rival Shiites and Kurds, or Shiite and Sunni Muslims, and also acting as a buffer between Iraq and Jordan to prevent Iran, Syria and Iraq ganging up to re-establish an eastern front against Israel.
4. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military forces report that that the most secret section of the understandings concluded by Panetta and Al-Maliki assured the US of retaining control of the four big Iraqi air bases: Balad, a 42-square-kilometer fortress in the center, about 90 kilometers north of Baghdad; Al Asad, once known as H-4, which is the largest US military base and is located in the western province of Al Anbar.
The Ali Airbase near the southern town of Nasiriyah known also as Tallil Airbase which occupies 30 square kilometers and is protected by a 22-kilometer security perimeter wall. The only American base in southern Iraq, its job will be to protect the Iraqi oilfields in the Basra and Shatt al-Arab areas.
A fourth air base is under rapid construction in Kurdistan east of Halabja, a town less than 15 kilometers from the Iranian frontier. Local Kurdish media report a secret accord between the two ruling Kurdish factions for the US to maintain a permanent military base in the self-ruling, oil-rich northern province of Iraq.
Two of the four American air bases, Halabja and Talil, will therefore face Iran.
Thousands of US Air Force and army personnel will be required to man and defend the four air bases. Their cover-designation and size remain to be defined. However, this force can on no account be supplied by the 15,000-strong US formation remaining under diplomatic and commercial cover in Iraq after the main body of US troops withdraws from Iraq nine years after the invasion. Additional personnel will be required.

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