Iraqi Dead Pile up after US-backed Ceasefire Talks with Sunnis Break down
In the last three days, a spiraling wave of violence is focusing on Baghdad, leaving more than 150 Iraqis dead, and fanning out as far as Hilla south of the capital, the Sunni Triangle cities, Kirkuk and the oil pipe junction near Baiji, to the north. In the capital, the Green Zone seat of government coalition headquarters has been battered by heavy mortar and rocket barrages and bomb-cars, the Sadr city slum has seen rebel militiamen clash with Iraqi and US patrols, and the Haifa Street neighborhood in the center of the city which houses a concentration of anti-US Baathists and Palestinians has been the site of roadside bombs and anti-American mob frenzy.
Al Qaeda operations chief in Iraq, Musab Al-Zarqawi, has used the Internet to claim most of the attacks, once even in his own audio-taped voice. He is employing the same diabolically simple tactic as terrorists everywhere: maximize civilian casualties in crowd centers, preferably in the capital city. The victims will then vent their fury on the authorities (the Allawi government and US forces) for failing to provide security with increasingly destabilizing effect. The terrorists meanwhile creep away to their hidden lairs safe in the knowledge that rooting them out will produce more civilian bloodshed.
To reach those lairs US warplanes have been subjecting the Sunni, no-go town of Fallujah to almost nightly air strikes. American and Iraqi forces also fought for twelve days to purge the Turkomen town of Tel Afar, west of Mosul in the north, of terrorists. Tuesday, September 14, Turkey threatened to withdraw all logistical assistance from US forces in Iraq unless the onslaught stopped.
The fresh flare-up this month stems directly from the breakdown of secret ceasefire negotiations with Sunni Baathist guerrilla commanders launched jointly by the Bush administration and the Allawi government in the hope of a deal on the same lines as the arrangement that ended Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr’s Mehdi Army revolt in Najef last month.
Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi picked up quickly on this failure.
He told British media interviewers on Monday, September 13, that elections must go ahead in January according to plan even if violence stops Iraqis from voting in some places. If for any reason 300,000 cannot vote – and this is a big if – because terrorists decide so, then 300,000 will not alter 25 million people voting, he said.
In so saying, Allawi admitted that he has no realistic expectation of an end to the current bloodshed by 2005, and accepts that it may be fierce enough in some Iraqi towns to prevent a large number of willing voters from reaching the polls.
But the United States faces an election much sooner. A president running for reelection cannot expect to get away without explaining what exactly produced the deadly flames sweeping across Iraq today.
According to debkafile‘s Iraq and intelligence sources, the violence surged after Washington and the interim Iraqi government spent two fruitless months deep in an earnest effort to end the insurgency by engaging the Sunni-Baath leaders on two tracks. A third was added this month.
The first two were launched in early July. On White House orders, US intelligence flew into Iraq a high-ranking non-Iraqi Arab personage (whose identity is kept secret in the interests of his personal safety). In one of the Sunni Triangle cities he met a number of Sunni and Baath guerrilla chiefs and former generals for talks on an end to the fighting. They talked quietly off and on until late August against the noisy background of the fierce battles in Najef. Because of these exchanges, Sadr’s desperate pleas for aid from Baathist guerrillas fell on deaf ears. He wanted them to open a second front against the US-led Iraqi forces pinning him down in the Shiite holy city.
The Allawi government opened a parallel track with the local leaders of Ramadi, Samarra, Fallujah, Balad and Baghdad.
The third track opened up two weeks ago, After the Najef confrontation wound down, the senior Iraqi Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, attempted to follow up his success in Nejaf by brokering a similar deal with his Sunni counterpart, Abu Abdullah of Fallujah. Abdullah’s militia is top dog also in Ramadi, Samarra, and Balad. He proposed a package consisting of a halt in insurgent belligerence against American and Iraqi forces, the semi-mock disarmament of guerrilla forces – some would keep their weapons – and a US pledge to keep is forces out of Sunni towns, which would purge themselves of foreign Arab and al Qaeda fighters. Anti-US attacks would be confined to a war of words.
However, our Iraqi sources report that in the last two weeks, all three negotiating tracks broke down.
The senior Arab personage stopped visiting Iraq.
Allawi broke off his secret meetings with Sunni town leaders.
Sistani is still talking to Abu Abdallah – but is getting nowhere.
This stalemate emanated, according to our sources, from a standoff over the degree of Sunni influence in government. The Iraqi prime minister and Americans rejected Sunni demands for substantial representation and top jobs in various departments, including defense, which would be senior enough to assure them of a role in state policy decisions.
But even after the fighting has renewed, Allawi managed to reach limited agreements with some local leaders. Samarra, for instance, threw al Qaeda out of the town.
Since the breakdown of the secret talks, four main battle sectors have emerged, according to debkafile‘s military sources:
1. Baghdad. where US troops are mainly up against Baath-al Qaeda’s bomb-cars, mortar, rocket and ambush tactics. The Shiite sector has slowed down mainly due to the exchanges the prime minister, himself a Shiite, is conducting with local leaders, but, most of all, because of Sadr’s present circumstances. Rumors of his fate abounded after the Najef ceasefire went into effect. debkafile‘s sources reveal that he never left the shrine city at all and remains there under Ayatollah Sistani’s protection. Indeed he has instructed his followers in Baghdad to lay down arms.
2. Fallujah. Almost nightly US “precision” air strikes aim to wipe out pockets of Zarqawi’s al Qaeda followers and other foreign Arab fighters, mainly Lebanese Hizballah terrorists. The American commanders know perfectly well that these pockets cannot be destroyed from the air – only softened, and that Marine and armored units will have to go in at some point to finish cleansing the Sunni town. But thus far, no such directive has come from Washington.
3. Tel Afar. For 12 days, American and Iraqi forces besieged and buffeted this Turkomen town, causing casualties estimated at 58 dead. On Tuesday, September 14, when their offensive was at its peak, they halted – a maneuver that tends to impress Iraqis with a sense of American irresolution. However, the Turkish government, deeply concerned by the casualties suffered by the ethnic Turkish population, would not take no for an answer and finally promised to undertake to finish the job the Americans started.
This job is an essential factor in pacifying a large part of the country.
Tel Afar was in the grip of a terrorist mosaic made up of Baathists, Zarqawi’s followers, Hizballah and Arab tribal nomads who subsist on smuggling fighters, weapons and cash in from Syria to Iraq. Tel Afar had been transformed into a distribution and logistical center for feeding armed fighters and tools of war to insurgent hotbeds around the country.
Tel Afar was left in peace when the Americans first struck out against Fallujah last April. This time, the US command realized the battle for Fallujah could not be won or the Sunni Triangle subdued without first clearing the enemy out of the Turkomen town. Tel Afar was broached therefore ahead of the new round against Fallujah.
4. Baqouba, Samarra, Ramadi. In this sector, US forces are not only up against Baath guerrillas and al Qaeda, but a hodge-podge of Ansar al Islam, Medhi Army renegades who do not accept the Najef ceasefire, and local Shiite and Sunni elements in the pay of Iranian Revolutionary Guards agents who cross back and forth from Iran with ease.
The official statements bracketing Iraqi units with US forces on all these fronts are hyperbolic. In Najef, the Iraqis fighting alongside US Marines were men of the Kurdistani 36th Commando Battalion. In Tel Afar, Iraqis take no part in the fighting, despite the best US and Iraqi government efforts.
There is no doubt that both the Iraqi government and US command were taken aback by the escalating scale, ferocity and massive casualties of this week’s combat. According to debkafile‘s military sources, Allawi and military advisers, as well as the American command had originally blocked in the September Offensive as a last resort in case the various negotiating tracks fell apart. They would then force an end to the Sunni guerrilla war once and for all. Republican campaign chiefs were counting on a successful offensive quelling the insurgency and convincing the American voter that the Bush war strategy in Iraq had turned out trumps. However, it now transpires that the Sunnis and al Qaeda’s Iraqi leaders were forewarned in detail of the campaign in store in time to prepare an offensive of their own.
Iraqis, especially in Baghdad, are now clamped in a lethal vice between the two offensives and paying a high price in lives. Whereas the US-led campaign was supposed to end in early November, Baathist and al Qaeda tacticians have no intention of easing up any time before Iraq’s first general election in January, 2005.