An unusual mass movement of convoys heading north out of Ramadi, Fallujah, Habaniya, Baqouba and Kadhimain in central Iraq was picked up before dawn Thursday, January 6, by US intelligence ground and air spotters. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources reveal that what they witnessed was the organized flight in a body of insurgent, Arab fighter and al Qaeda forces from the central Sunni Triangle to unknown destinations in northern Iraq.
By sunup, they had scattered around prepared hideouts in towns on the banks of the Euphrates and along the main Ramadi-Haditha highway. Most of the guerrilla units are believed to have made for Hit, where the bulk of Abu Musab al Zarqawi‘s followers are believed to have gone to ground when Fallujah become to hot for them. Smaller groups of Baathists were reported in Haswah, Sahidya and Khan al Baghdadi.
Since this exodus took US and Iraqi intelligence by surprise, no one in the American high command or the Iraqi defense ministry in Baghdad can for the moment identify its purpose or destination.
American commanders offer two theories: one, that the Baath-al Qaeda command has relocated its main offensive force to Mosul as its next hotbed, in place of Najef, Fallujah and Sadr City. This decision may have been prompted by the arrival in the northern city of elements of the US 82nd Airborne Division and Kurdish commando battalions – and the discovery that the two armies are operating at cross purposes.
(See also separate article in this issue on Turkey and Israel)
The American force is under orders to bottle the Kurdish units up in the Kurdish districts of northern Mosul, while the Kurdish commanders are equally determined to establish a presence in the center of town and its southern and eastern districts.
For the guerrilla and terror chiefs, the tug-o’-war between the Americans and Kurds creates a fine opportunity to inflict damage on both.
The second theory is that the insurgents have regrouped in new locations for a concentrated assault on Baghdad during the January 30 general election.
For the moment, there is no intelligence backup for either theory or data to explain the sudden flight.
Shiites engage in campaign mud-slinging
As enemy forces regroup, a power struggle is being fought in Baghdad over the top position in the post-election administration.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in the Iraqi capital report a major rift between senior Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani and interim prime minister Iyad Allawi, which erupted in mid-December and is still raging.
Sistani then withdrew his confidence from the prime minister as the future head of elected government. Allawi, who as a Shiite dare not openly challenge the ayatollah, joined hands with defense minister Hazem Shaalan to fight Dr. Hussein Shahrastani, Sistani’s candidate for prime minister.
The candidate is a member of the United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of mainly Shiite parties – the Dawa Islamic Party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq – SCIRI – and Ahmed Chalabi‘s list, which the ayatollah cobbled together as a joint slate.
Allawi and Shaalan are resolved that Sharastani will never take over the prime minister’s office. Therefore, according to our sources, the ayatollah ordered Sharastani to take his family and move secretly to London and stay safe. They are hidden by the same friends who looked after Sistani when he departed Najef last summer for fear of assassination by the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr‘s minions.
Around this feud, election campaigning between the Allawi-Shaalon Iraqi National Accord and Sistani’s United Iraqi Alliance is heating up three weeks ahead of the ballot.
At one point, Shalaan branded the UIA an Iranian list and Hussein al-Shahrastani an Iranian agent. He hurled another charge: “This expert worked for two years on the Iranian nuclear program after he was freed in 1991. He now has pretensions to become the head of the Iraqi government. But we will not allow that.”
According to Shahrastani’s known biography, he is a doctor of nuclear chemistry from the University of Toronto and was a key official of Iraq’s atomic energy commission until Saddam became president in 1979. He then refused to be part of Saddam’s nuclear program and was jailed for 10 years at Abu Ghraib prison. During the first Gulf War in 1991, he broke out when the US bombardment of Baghdad put the warders to flight. He picked up his family in Baghdad and fled to Iran.
A relatively secular Shiite who was UN Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s first choice for interim prime minister, Shahrastani is number seven on the unified Shiite slate.
Allawi addresses the Shiite partisan rivalry in tones that sound calm and democratic. He voices his certainty that the dispute will be settled legitimately at the ballot box by a majority of voters choosing between the two Shiite parties. In any case, he believes the two will have to come together to negotiate a power-sharing deal because neither will win enough votes to rule alone.
The Sharastani faction is high skeptical of Allawi’s benign intentions.
Our sources in Baghdad report that the only clear outcome of the struggle for power at the moment is that Ghazi Yawar will be stepping down as president after the elections. But he won’t be far from the corridors of power. His replacement is privately tipped to be his older brother Muhammed Yawar.