Sunday, June 12, the Kurdish parliament in Irbil ceremonially confirmed Masoud Barzani, head of one of the two main Kurdish parties of Iraq, as first president of the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq.
The Kurdish media imbued the event with a strong sense of occasion. They listed every dignitary present, high or low.
The ceremony took place, they reported, in the presence of Federal Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, vice presidents, the speaker of the federal Iraqi parliament, Iraqi MPs, several federal government ministers including the foreign minister, the chairman of the Constitution Committee, the head of the Kirkuk Commission, the Iraqi ambassador to Egypt, Iraqi political parties representatives, Kurdish political party representatives, the UN Secretary-General’s representative in Iraq with a message and cultural personalities from all over Kurdistan.
The sense they conveyed was that broad national and international recognition had been solemnly bestowed on Iraqi Kurdistan’s first president, now an immutable fact. The Kurdish media were right. A seal had been affixed to a Middle East first, the most momentous political, ethnic-national and geographical event since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003: the birth of the first Kurdish state in northern Iraq – or anywhere, for that matter. Millions of ethnic Kurds have become the masters of their destiny and, moreover, of northern Iraq’s oil treasure, along with its biggest export pipeline to Turkey’s Mediterranean shore. Their independence and assets are secured by a 60,000-strong army.
On paper, Barzani must defer to the Iraqi federal president Talabani, former rival turned partner. But never in the half century of their relationship, whether as adversaries or collaborators, has the new Kurdish president ever been other than his own man. No one can conceive of Barzani bending the knee to the federal president.
Rather, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iraq sources have previously reported, the two are bound by a secret pact whereby Barzani pledged support for Talabani’s presidency in Baghdad for a high price. Talabani guaranteed non-interference in Kurdish affairs by the national government, its elected institutions and army; half the government jobs quota allocated Kurds go to members of Barzani’s party, the PUK; and the federal president promised to uphold the independence of the military and intelligence frameworks at the Kurdish president’s disposal.
Shiites and Kurds pull in opposite directions for same goal
Pulling Iraq apart from the south is a second process, the rapid build-up of the structures for Shiite self-rule and an independent armed force. (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 209 of June 10: Iraq Is Breaking Apart).
It is administered by the Grand Ayatollahs of Najef and Karbala led by Ali Sistani, with the former renegade Moqtada al-Sadr and the heads of the two large Shiite parties, prime minister Ibrahim Jaafari and his deputy Ahmed Chalabi and SCIRI leader, Abdel Aziz al-Hakim.
Significantly, Al Hakim visited Tehran Thursday, June 16, the day before Iran’s presidential election.
Two and a quarter years after Baghdad was captured by American-led forces, the Iraqi capital has fallen again – this time into Iraqi Kurdish and Shiite hands.
In many ways, the objectives of these two population groups dovetail with the Bush administration’s first goal in Iraq: the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime and its corollary, the dismissal and disempowerment of the Sunni Muslim community at large. Now, Kurdish and Shiite leaders are determined to make sure they stay out of power. They are maneuvering around pressure from Washington to restore the Sunnis to some of their old positions of strength.
The Americans believe that restoring Sunni factions to top jobs will provide an incentive for them to halt the endless cycle of deadly terror plaguing the country and subjecting it to intolerable levels of death and destruction day after day.
The Shiites and Kurds who dominate government in Baghdad attach little credence to this argument and are therefore slow to respond. Even if they do, any jobs they cede to Sunni factions will be carefully stripped of real effectiveness before they are handed over.
In the meantime, Baghdad itself is being shorn of the appurtenances of a historic capital in consequence of the Kurdish and Shiite drive to build up their own autonomous regions.
Baghdad‘s dominion faces shrinkage and loss of oil
The city is threatened with being reduced to the status of a provincial capital. Any government seated there will be left with a shrunken country to rule over: just the central Sunni-dominated strip and the western region. The bulk of Iraq’s oil resources will have passed out of its hands and it will have no army to speak of to control a string of lawless terror bases.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East experts see this trend persisting strongly in the coming months with the following results.
- The guerrilla war will intensify and the daily score of dead continue to rise. Wednesday, June 15, more than 60 were killed in a single day – mostly by suicide bombings. Since Jaafari’s interim government look office on April 28, more than 700 Iraqis have died. In June alone, 26 US troops were killed in combat or guerrilla attacks.
- Most of the violence is staged in Baghdad and its surrounding Sunni towns, or in the western Iraqi Anbar province that abuts the Syrian border. The southern Shiite regions south of Baghdad and Kurdistan have been relatively unscathed.
- The brunt of counter-insurgent combat will continue to fall on the American army for the foreseeable future. The bright expectations of an effective Iraqi army quickly trained to operational competence have proved unrealistic. Only a few Kurdish and Shiite special forces brigades of the Iraqi national army are combat-worthy. Hence the reports this week of a growing number of US military experts who no longer see a long-term military solution to the insurgency.
- While the Kurdish and Shiite military forces stay more or less clear of guerrilla attacks, American units and their routes of travel are taking the worst of the violence and the highest number of casualties.
- DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military experts foresee the US military command in Iraq pushing for American units to be relocated out of the Sunni regions in central Iraq to the safer Kurdish and Shiite areas. The generals will point out to Washington that it makes more tactical sense for American forces to execute frequent, sudden forays against insurgents from safe bases than to mount the current large-scale complicated operations.
- A decision to pull US forces – wholly or in part – out of the Sunni districts would have a strong bearing on other aspects of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy and its plans for Baghdad.
- President George W. Bush can expect rising clamor at home to pull some US units out of Iraq as the carnage goes on. Popular approval of his performance as war leader has slid below 50%. Influential members of his own Republican party in the Senate and House, once ardent backers of the war, this week threatened new legislation with a directive for the president to set a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops. The White House spokesman Scott McClellan was sent post haste twice this week to dismiss the demand as “sending the wrong message to the terrorists and to the Iraqi people.”
Iraqi insurgents upgrade weapons
Our military sources maintain that the defense of Baghdad, its government institutions and the broad western region, especially the Al Qaim province bordering on Syria and Jordan, presents the US-led forces with almost insurmountable military challenges. In months of combat, they have achieved no more than partial control of the major Sunni towns north of Baghdad.
This was made evident Wednesday night, June 16: 5 American troops died when their vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb made of a “shaped charge.” These charges usually consist of 25-55 kilos of explosives whose blast is concentrated in a small area allowing the penetration of even heavy tank armor.
The Abrams tank and the Striker are vulnerable.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military experts note that because this supercharged weapon is capable of inflicting large-scale casualties, it has the potential of reducing the insurgents’ reliance on suicide bombers.
Iraqi guerrilla’s newfound “shaped charge” capability is traced by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military experts to another Middle East conflict arena. It has been used since 2003 with deadly effect by the Palestinians for attacks on Israeli tanks in the Gaza Strip, after they received the weapon from the Lebanese Hizballah.
The field experience gained by Palestinian Hamas and Fatah-al Aqsa Brigades units and their Hizballah helpers has been applied to its local Gaza manufacture. The improved technology was transferred from Gaza to Hizballah in Beirut by couriers plying the Gaza-Lebanon Mediterranean sea route aboard smuggler’s boats, or Hizballah officers crossing the Gaza border into Egypt and thence to Beirut.
From Lebanon, Hizballah or al Qaeda agents carried the sophisticated technology to Iraq’s insurgents.
Sunni Triangle handover to Kurdish forces? Maybe soon
Our Iraq sources report that for months, Kurdish and Shiite leaders have been urging the US military command to co-opt their armed forces to the military operations flushing out the guerrillas who constantly beset the highways linking the north and the south with Baghdad.
Until now, the Americans have withstood these demands for fear that the few Sunni leaders and insurgent chiefs willing to hold surreptitious talks with the Americans will be put off by the sight of Kurdish or Shiite fighters making free of their territory.
But the more intense the insurgency becomes and the more sophisticated its weaponry, the better the chances of Kurdish and Shiite troops being allowed eventually to secure these vital highways – even if their mission entails their taking up positions close to Sunni cities.
This remedy could ease some difficulties confronting US forces in western Iraq.
The declining strategic importance of the Sunni heartland would relieve some of the US forces of their presence in central Iraq. Anti-insurgent operations in the western regions could be mounted from across the border – from Jordan, for instance.
The Hashemite kingdom is in any case fully engaged in managing the hush-hush encounters between American field commanders and some of the Sunni guerrilla chiefs.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources, dozens of Jordanian intelligence officers – pressed into service as “liaison men” – are employed in Iraq to scurry to and fro with messages between the two sides and between the Sunni chiefs and the royal palace in Amman for transmission to Washington.
Amman palace is hive of mediation
This traffic is supervised by the king’s newly-appointed national security chief, Jordanian general Saad Kheir. Sources in Amman say he makes daily reports to the king.
But although the exchanges have been going on since February, little has been achieved. Even the few agreed ad hoc ground rules rule did not hold up for long.
The Americans did use the chance to collect intelligence data on the leadership of the various guerrilla factions and their methods of operation, but got nowhere on the issue of paramount importance to Washington, the decline in insurgent attacks on US forces and Iraqis. For the moment, the guerrillas are talking and shooting simultaneously.
Before any breakthrough can be expected, two hurdles must be overcome.
One, none of the insurgent leaders wants to be the first to accept a truce for fear it will be his last. US-Jordanian efforts are focusing accordingly on persuading a group of guerrilla chiefs, the larger the better, whose areas of operation are closely bunched together, to accept a collective ceasefire.
Two, Iraqi guerrilla chiefs want any ceasefire to leave them in control of the territory they hold as well as keeping their weapons. They also demand a guaranteed flow of cash, preferably from the Americans, that will assure their followers the continuation of their regular wages. They argue that, under a Shiite-Kurdish regime, Sunni factions are obliged to look to their interests, because the heads of this government are bent only on reducing the Sunnis to the same penury they suffered under Saddam Hussein.
A compromise of sorts over Constitution Committee
In these circumstances, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iraq and counter-terror experts see little chance of the guerrilla war abating any time soon. Some let-up might be achieved by means of local agreements with guerrilla and tribal chiefs that would let them hang on to land. But this device was tried unsuccessfully at Falluja in 2004 and later for troubled areas around the northern towns of Mosul and in Tal Afar. In the latter case, Turkey undertook to guarantee a truce if the Americans retreated.
Instead of dying down, the attacks from the areas subject to these local accords escalated. The insurgent leaders bound by them felt they had bought immunity from US military action. But their lands were treated as sanctuaries for a flood of outside guerrilla forces, who set themselves up in new bases. This, the signers of the accords were helpless to stop.
Shiite and Sunni factions, haggling for weeks over the size of Sunni representation on the panel drawing up a new Iraqi constitution, reached a sort of compromise Thursday, June 16. The Shiites offered the Sunnis 15 of the panel’s 55 seats as well as a place for 10 advisers.
The Sunni parties had demanded 25 seats. But Abdul Rahman Munshid al-Asi, a Sunni negotiator, announced that a compromise had been reached with Shiite and Kurdish groups. But it is not known how many Sunni factions he represents.
The new constitution must be ready for a referendum in August prior to a general election in December. The Americans hope the Sunnis will be prevailed upon to participate in these polls. Most Sunnis boycotted the January 30 election. If anything has changed since then, it is the hardening of their disaffection from the US-backed political process in Baghdad.
For the present, Iraq is undergoing four distinct processes that are not necessarily interrelated.
A. Democracy is alive in Baghdad, with a new constitution and general election in sight before the end of the year. B. Iraq and its oil-rich northern and southern provinces are being divided up between the Kurds and the Shiites. C. Iraqi insurgency and Arab terror continue their bloodbath. D. Baghdad and its outlying Sunni towns are in decline as relevant factors of Iraq’s foreseeable political and economic development.
This is a decisive moment for the Bush administration to connect these processes into a coherent whole. Perhaps what is needed is a timetable – not for an American troop withdrawal, but for a redefinition of its mission in Iraq. American forces might be more effectively deployed if they retired from the violent Sunni center to behind Kurdish and Shiite lines. If they don’t, they will face increasing punishment marooned at the forefront of Iraq’s guerrilla war.