Wednesday night, October 13, large-scale US and Iraqi forces were poised on battle readiness in offensive array around four Sunni Triangle hotbeds: Fallujah, Ramadi, Latafiya and Balad. They were waiting for the order to launch major assaults.
This was the backdrop against which Interim Iraqi PM Iyad Allawi slapped down an ultimatum to the people of Fallujah: hand Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his group of terrorists and hostage-takers over or prepare for a major military assault. The interim prime minister warned: “We will not be lenient.”
Allawi blew a fuse after Zarqawi’s Tawhid and Jihad website displayed the gruesome beheadings of two Iraqi intelligence officers,” an intolerable affront to the forces of law and order in Baghdad.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iraq sources reveal the Iraqi prime minister also blew up the imminent prospect of a ceasefire accord, after weeks of painful negotiations with Sunni insurgent leaders.
Twenty-four hours later, on Thursday, October 14, a riposte came from Fallujah’s guerrilla commander Abu As’ad, who said in effect: we cannot accept your ultimatum because Zarqawi is not here. If you want a fight, we are ready.
However, according to those same sources, Abu As’ad also covered his back. He issued a quiet ultimatum to the terrorist chief’s followers saying: if Zarqawi is found in Fallujah, be warned that his blood is on your heads.
To be on the safe side, Fallujah’s insurgent leader posted a third message addressed to the insurgent leaders controlling the Sunni bastions of Latafiya, Mahdmoudiya and Yousefiya south of Baghdad. If the Americans went ahead with their offensive against Fallujah, would they please strike them from the south.
The result of all these exchanges by Thursday night was a stalemate loaded with enough incendiary to hold all the belligerents stockstill.
Until Wednesday’s blowout, events in Iraq were beginning to move along a hopeful track plentifully oiled by US bucks.
In Baghdad’s hardscrabble Sadr City, firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr‘s militiamen have since Monday been handing over their mortars and heavy machineguns for cash. By late Wednesday, October 13, they had been paid out $800,000. This was a measure of the amounts Washington has been waving in insurgent faces to douse the fires of conflict across Iraq – with good results. Sadr, long a thorn in the side of the US military, is shouting from the rooftops that his struggle is over and politics are his next battlefront.
Draining the insurgent swamp
Fallujah has been cut off from its supply of fighters from the east. Although cooperation between the American army and the Syrian military along the Iraqi border is still spotty, it has achieved a key goal: Sunni Triangle insurgents, including Fallujah, know that the free flow through Syria of reinforcements, weapons, explosives and, perhaps most importantly, money is about to peter out completely. Shiite and foreign Arab fighters, along with al Qaeda operatives, who were fed through the same avenue for months, are in a similar situation.
In the north, the Kurds are tightening controls over the movement of people and goods headed for the Sunni Triangle, while American forces are on the offensive along a swath of land between Baghdad and Habaniyah.
Iranian agents have suspended the operations of their substantial networks of combatants and agents in Iraq, who are centered mainly in Balad and Baqoubah at the eastern end of the Sunni Triangle. For now, they are keeping an extremely low profile.
From an American military perspective, the Shiite resistance was successfully broken twice in Najaf and the southern Iraqi cities – in August and early September. Last month and early October, this American success was repeated in the main Sunni cities of Iraq.
Three groups of mediators (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 176, October 8, 2004, “The Return of Ahmed Chalabi”) have been at work: Iraqi prime minister Allawi’s men, Ahmed Chalabi, the former Iraqi exile leader who represented Sadr and the mainstream Shiite sages, and former senior Baath party members recruited by Jordanian military intelligence and sent to Fallujah and other Sunni stronghold cities.
Of the three, the “Jordanian group” was the most effective. As former members of Saddam Hussein’s party, they had personal acquaintance with key figures of the Iraqi guerrilla groups in the flashpoint cities. They also had more money to spread around than competing ceasefire brokers. Greenbacks change many tunes. Suddenly the talk around guerrilla circles in Fallujah turned on the need to kick Zarqawi’s cutthroats and foreign Arab fighters out of the city – sooner rather than later.
According to our sources, US efforts to end the fighting were eased by the terror operations chief’s having been away from Iraq for months. Zarqawi’s whereabouts appear to be unknown to the Americans or even his own men. No one seems to know who is handing out orders in his absence.
(See separate article on the interrogation of one of Zarqawi’s deputies, Omar Baziyani.)
Too late to help Bush campaign
These largely unreported advances have come too late to help George W. Bush campaign for reelection. The situation in Fallujah and the Sunni Triangle is unlikely to stabilize dramatically in the eighteen days left until the poll – especially after this week’s contretemps.
But on the quiet, Bush’s special Iraqi advisers Robert Blackwill and US ambassador John Negroponte, are revealed by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Iraqi sources to have rebuilt Iraq’s electoral system from scratch. They have scrapped the constituency system devised by Paul Bremer because of its built-in incentives for the rise of local and regional power centers run by competing political activists and clan leaders with narrow interests, whose petty squabbling could plunge the country into fresh chaos. They have replaced it with the proportional electoral system, which they hope will promote large national blocs to emerge in time to run for the January election and establish broad coalitions to govern the country.
Even the opponents of the US-backed Allawi regime, chiefly Sunni insurgent leaders, will have to consider power-sharing arrangements or be wiped off the national political map.
The Sunnis committed to fighting the Americans now face a hard choice – to boycott the election or to form a large Sunni bloc that will bag a large number of seats in the national assembly under the proportional voting system.
Dealing with the same challenge, the most influential Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has begun fashioning a bloc comprised of all the Shiite parties and factions, including also Sadr and his following. Sistani has been explaining to the various Shiite leaders that the community’s only hope of a substantial share in national government is to file a single Shiite slate of candidates for the coming election.
The case of the Kurds is typically more complicated. The two top Kurdish leaders, Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani have been discussing a Kurdish bloc, but have yet to agree on its composition. Talabani wants to bring in Turkomen, Assyrians and other minority groups, while Barzani wants an all-Kurdish list.
The coming elections have also stirred up activity in some unknown corners of the Iraqi scene.
Our sources reveal that ten mostly obscure Sunni insurgent factions got together this week in one of the Sunni Triangle cities and decided to set up a joint command called a Revolutionary Shura Council dedicated to preventing an Iraqi election and carry on fighting.
A list of the participating groups, some unknown to US and Iraqi intelligence, has reached DEBKA-Net-Weekly:
The Islamic Jihad Army
The Scorpions of Iraq
The (Baath Party-affiliated) Iraq National Front
The Secret Iraqi Army
The Victorious Iraqi People’s Army
The Iraqi Justice Brigades
The Iraqi Islamic Resistance, a group that includes Sheik Abdullah‘s Sunni fighters in Fallujah and Ramadi. This group opposes any ceasefire deal with the Americans, because they refused to recognize it as the sole authority in both cities.
The Iraqi Lions
The Supreme Sunni Council of Sages in Fallujah and Ramadi
The Armed Factions of the Diyala District (which includes Baqouba).
Also operating in Iraq are fanatical terrorist groups under al Qaeda’s wing such as the Suna al-Islam Army, Zarqawi’s Tawhid and Jihad and Ansar al-Islam.