Iraq war watchers accustomed to reading about Falluja, Ramadi, Tikrit, Baquba will now have to familiarize themselves with a whole new set of flashpoints between pro-Saddam guerrilla and US forces. What this means, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military analysts note, is that the Sunni Triangle battlefield has edged north and farther away from Baghdad.
(See attached map)
The turning point was the big Samarra Battle 70 miles northwest of Baghdad on Sunday, November 30, when the US 4th Infantry Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team confronted Iraqi guerrilla forces in this elegant old city, its Shiite shrines built on the site of a settlement dating to the 6th century BC.
Three new military and political realities surfaced in that engagement:
1. The most conspicuous was the shift north of the notorious Sunni Triangle, which is lifting the arena fought over by the US 2nd and 4th Infantry Divisions – from Baquba, Baghdad, Falluja and Ramadi – to Samarra in the west and Jalawla in the east.
The new line bypasses the Samarra East and Salum airfields where the United States has positioned fighter planes, bombers, attack helicopters, Predator pilotless aircraft and reconnaissance drones.
The western leg of the New Sunni Triangle, from Samarra along the eastern bank of the Tigris to the town of Khazimyah, south of the refinery town of Baiji, detours Tikrit City and Tikrit East air base. From Khazimyah to the southern approaches of Baiji and Kirkuk, Iraqi guerrilla forces maintain a small but dangerous presence, owing to their close proximity to northern Iraq’s oil fields, pipelines and production facilities.
The eastern leg of the New Triangle stretches north from Jalawla toward Kifri and the Turkmen city of Tuzkhurmatu. It continues on to Tawuq and winds up at the eastern approaches to Kirkuk. As in the west, Iraqi guerrillas do not have the same control of the area they enjoyed only three months ago, in early September.
Small but menacing guerrilla contingents are spread out between the southern entrance to Tuzkhurmatu and Kirkuk.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources, their relocation has shrunk the Sunni Triangle by about one third. The pro-Saddam diehards are being forced to retreat northward by the better integrated presence and improved offensive capabilities of US forces in such pro-Saddam stronghold towns as Fallujah, Ramadi, Tikrit and Baquba. Iraqi guerrillas have suffered a 60-70pc decline in their ability to mount attacks from these bases.
2. In the Samarra Battle, the hard-core fighting elements of Saddam Hussein’s Fedayeen suicides were encountered in the field for the first time since the fall of Baghdad in April. They confronted an American force led by Colonel Frederick Rudesheim, commander of the 4th Infantry Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team.
3. For the first time too, American troops attacked the first perimeter defense line of the key Samarra enclave where Saddam and his men are believed to be holed up. DEBKA-Net-Weekly has heard that witnesses and detainees in coalition hands report Saddam and his top deputy Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri have been seen in this region and around Mosul, usually in the disguise of tribal merchants.
(On July 18, 2003, DEBKA-Net-Weekly 117 first pointed to the Samarra enclave as Saddam’s hidden fortress.)
Up until the November 30 battle, the US military command avoided inserting large contingents into the Samarra enclave, only reconnaissance and intelligence squads. They had two reasons for holding off frontal action:
A. They preferred to close the noose around Saddam gradually rather than abruptly in the hope of netting him along with his top deputies, such as al-Douri, and detaching him from his main power centers.
B. No one in the US command or in Washington could be sure that Saddam Fedayeen units had not been armed with unconventional weapons, chemical or even biological agents.
According to the official US account, the Samarra battle erupted when two US military convoys were ambushed transporting to banks new money issued by the interim government in Baghdad to replace currency bearing Saddam’s picture. It was, in a word, an attempted bank heist.
However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and intelligence sources reveal that the convoys were in Samarra for a quite different mission: to seek out and capture or kill Ibrahim Izzat al Douri’s eldest son, Mohammed, 38.
The most recent American operations in this part of Iraq have been generally presented as attempts to lay hands on Izzat Ibrahim himself, who is described as the arch-planner of the pro-Saddam guerrilla campaign. But the information in the hands of US intelligence is that Saddam’s top deputy is dying of leukemia. It is his son who has taken command of the two Fedayeen Saddam suicide brigades – one deployed in the New Sunni Triangle, the other in the Mosul district further to the north.
The 300-400 fighters of each brigade are especially trained for urban guerrilla warfare in both built-up and open terrain, in suicide assaults and the use of weapons of mass destruction.
Our military sources identify the Fedayeen facing the 3rd Brigade Combat Team in Samarra as members of the first brigade, who fought under al-Douri’s command. They were almost completely wiped out in the battle. The US military commander reported 54 Iraqi dead. Iraqi sources put the number at eight. The real figure is much higher – estimated by our sources at least at 125, decimating one of the key brigades in the war against the US-led coalition and the defensive lines around the deposed ruler.
The US task’s force will next seek out and destroy the second Fedayeen Brigade. Mission success would annihilate the last of Saddam’s elite units and leave him and his close circle without defenders.
The Samarra operation was no shot in the dark.
First came reconnaissance by army and intelligence teams across broad regions of northwestern and eastern Iraq. In the third week of November, a US special forces unit captured the son of Izzat Al-Douri’s personal physician. A few days later, two former Special Republican Guard generals, one called Dia Aladdin al-Douri, were picked up at a coffee house in the northern town of Mosul. Questioning them brought to light their links with Fedayeen Saddam officers and Mohammed al-Douri’s central role in guarding the safety of his father and Saddam himself who keep him close by their side.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources, Mohammed Izzat succeeded Saddam’s sons Uday and Qusay as commander of the Fedayeen Saddam and the guerrilla units after they were killed in a US raid on their Mosul hideout in July.
The Americans continued to step up their efforts to capture Saddam and his top team. They approached two tribal chiefs in eastern Iraq, Ali Hussein Salah, head of the Jawala tribe, and Muzhan Motlak, leader of the Sawlha tribe, who were believed to have information vital to their hunt. Motlak pointed the Americans to the location in Samarra of al-Douri’s second wife and daughter. When picked up, they denied knowledge of his whereabouts.
The next step was to post a $10 million bounty on Izzat Ibrahim’s head (as first revealed by debkafile on Friday, November 28, several hours after DEBKA-Net-Weekly 135 was published), in the belief that information leading to Saddam’s top deputy will also lead to the ex-ruler in person. Motlak, who turned in the wife and daughter, later told his US interrogators that he had personally hidden Izzat Ibrahim with a member of his tribe some days earlier and that his doctors had given him no more than days to live.
The chase continues.