In the Middle East, America’s Exit from Iraq Attracts Less Interest than Gathering War Clouds

Since April 2007, George W. Bush has had on his desk an exit plan from Iraq, built around the phased pull-back by early 2008 of a little more than half of the 170,000 or so troops there at present. Around 50-70,000 soldiers are to be redeployed to large strategic fortified enclaves in the south and the north as a semi-permanent US presence. They will be backed by four naval and aerial strike groups in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea and a chain of giant air bases, some expanded, others built from scratch, in Oman, Qatar and Jordan.
The military sources of debkafile and DEBKA-Net-Weekly have been tracking the evolution of this White House master plan since April 27.
Building up in Persian Gulf waters as a key element of this post-withdrawal military plan are three American carriers and their strike groups. The USS Enterprise CVN 65 Big E Strike Group departed for the region Monday, July 8, to join the USS Stennis and USS Nimitz carriers which are already there.
A clue to the coming American deployment can be seen in the Basra Province of southern Iraq where British troops have shut themselves away in a well-fortified compound south of the oil city. It is blasted daily by mortars and other heavy weapons. From time to time, British commando patrols emerge to hit enemy assault concentrations.
In short, even after the Americans quit Iraq, the Iraq War will continue – with one difference: it will no longer rage in the main cities such as Baghdad, but in wide open spaces.
It is already apparent that the US army’s main enemy, certainly in the initial phase after withdrawal, will be al Qaeda, as it is today.
From the end of 2005, Iraq watchers realized there was no way of preventing Iraq fragmenting into sectarian or ethnic segments: an independent Kurdish state in the north and one, or even two, independent Shiite entities south of Baghdad.
The Americans campaign today focuses mainly on rooting the jihadist terrorists out of Baghdad, Baqouba, Ramadi and Falluja in order to determine the identity and character of the third segment, an independent Sunni Muslim enclave in central Iraq.
This task cannot be finished within the timeframe dictated by political realities in America. There is no way therefore of saying for certain which Sunnis will rule that part of the country – indigenous Iraqi Arabs or al Qaeda, or even, by remote control through a surge of cash, Saudi Arabia. Therefore, the outcome of the current US-al Qaeda showdown in Iraq will bear long-term consequences for American positions in the Persian Gulf, especially in relation to Iran.
debkafile‘s Washington sources report that on three points the Bush administration has not yet made final decisions:
1. Whether to launch a military operation to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities and cripple its strategic-economic infrastructure.
2. How to respond if Iran decides on a pre-emptive attack on US Middle East interests by fomenting local assaults against Israel by Syria, Hizballah and Hamas and a civil war in Lebanon. Some Middle East military and intelligence sources say this decision is already in the bag in Tehran. Will President Bush seek to avert these flare-ups of violence? Or use them as the starting shot for his military strike against Iran?
3. The timeline for beginning the US military pullout from Iraq, the third decision in abeyance, hinges heavily on the White House’s actions regarding the first two.
The optional exit dates for now are September 2000 or January-March 2008. The latter is seen as the more realistic by American commanders and soldiers serving in Iraq.
Amid the furious political controversy over the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq war, most Americans find it hard to imagine the US army capable of even contemplating taking on another conflict with Iran. It is seen by many as a nightmare scenario. But Tehran sees nothing far-fetched about it. Quite the reverse, Iranians are all but certain an US attack is inevitable this summer or, at latest, in the fall.
They note that the President Bush has never taken the military option off the table for dealing with Iran’s strongly suspected nuclear weapons program. The overriding importance of removing this threat is not in dispute between Bush and Democratic Party leaders.
The Middle East is therefore on the move, in readiness for the worst:
– Monday, July 9, Damascus called on Syrian civilians to depart Lebanon to avoid “an eruption” expected next week.
– US defense secretary Robert Gates cancelled a planned four-nation Latin American tour – officially to help complete the Pentagon’s “benchmark” report due in September. However, as perceived in Middle East capitals, Gates can see a conflagration building up in the region and decided his place was in Washington.
– Israel, Syria and Hizballah have prepared their armies for a war contingency entailing a possible clash on Golan and the Lebanese-Israeli frontier regions.
– Iran has imposed gasoline rationing on civilian vehicles. An Iranian official admitted in Tehran two days ago that the country was preparing for an emergency and stocking up on fuel for the military.
– The Turkish army has 140,000 troops poised to invade northern Iraq’s Kurdistan. Notwithstanding denials in Ankara and Baghdad, Turkish units are operating in northern Iraq against Turkish Kurdish PKK rebels.
– The American carrier, the USS Enterprise, is on its way to the Middle East with a powerful strike group.
Two months ago, military high commands in the Middle East stopped asking when the American army would leave Iraq. They took for granted that a major pull-back is in the works and not far away. The question exercising most minds these days is which of the two leading antagonists in the current regional contest will be first to assemble all the pieces of the war puzzle and gain the advantage over his rival, the Bush administration in Washington or Ali Khamenei’s mullahs in Tehran?

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