Iraqi Offensive Delayed, New Maps Drawn in Mid East Sands

The offshoots suddenly sprouted by America’s projected campaign against Saddam Hussein look even more ambitious than the core operation. These add-ons took shape in the course of US Vice President Richard Cheney’s 11-nation Middle East-Gulf tour this week.

The mounting opposition he encountered did not put the Bush administration off its plans. Instead, the White House is reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military, intelligence and political sources to have fitted new goals around the Iraqi scenario, including also solutions to the acute Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the long-festering Kurdish national issue and the Ethiopian-Somali border conflict – all primary engines of terror.

This expanded geopolitical-cum-military agenda calls for carefully synchronized multiple military strikes on several fronts. The immediate consequence of the revised plan of action is a six-to-eight week delay in the US military offensive against Baghdad – from early April to the second half of May or early June.

The postponement was decided during Cheney’s penultimate Middle East stop in Jerusalem on March 18-19, before he set off for Ankara. While the Palestinian issue appeared to dominate the visit, in reality most of the vice president’s 48-hour stay was taken up by highly confidential conferences between him and President George W. Bush, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of state Colin Powell, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and CIA director George Tenet.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly ‘s sources, Cheney’s foremost argument for the postponement was that broadening the campaign’s objectives to solve chronic conflicts that keep the region permanently on the boil, could rally its European and Middle East opponents round to supporting the strike against Saddam. The necessary delay could be profitably used to win more allied support.

But with or without such support, the Bush team is determined to press ahead with its multi-pronged program for removing Saddam and eradicating terror clusters embedded in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa.

In Washington’s sights are the Hizballah (harbored in Lebanon with tacit Syrian sanction) the new al-Qaeda bases established in south Lebanon (and tolerated by the Beirut government); the clandestine al Qaeda presence in the Gulf region, including Yemen (which collaborates with US but also secretly leaves the Islamic extremists be); Saudi Arabia (which secretly harbors al Qaeda partisans and openly refuses to collaborate with the US counter-terror drive); Abu Dhabi (a sanctuary for the lawless of every stripe); the al Qaeda cells harbored in Somalia and Sudan (notwithstanding Khartoum’s gesture of handing over an activist this week).

For and against

Ethiopia and Kenya actively fight the Islamic terrorists who have invaded their countries. This week, the Ethiopian army received a nod from Washington to enter Somali territory and root them out – an operation that could turn into an Ethiopian annexation of disputed areas of Somalia – yet another change in the world map potentially ensuing from America’s global war on terror, if Cheney’s ambitious geopolitical program pans out.

Still more fundamental is the Kurdish issue, which DEBKA-Net-Weekly ‘s sources report is a key element in the US program. Cheney’s talks in Ankara on March 20 ended on a sour note – the customary joint news conference of guest and host was omitted. Turkish leaders are furious because the Bush administration has gone back on the pledge offered prime minister Bulent Ecevit in January to preserve Iraq’s territorial integrity throughout the offensive against the Saddam regime.

The White House now contemplates the breakup of Iraq into component entities and the setting up a separate Kurdish entity in the north. This promise brings Iraq’s 5 million Kurds on America’s side in the campaign against Saddam.

The Turkish government warns that any extension of autonomy to the Kurds of Iraq will lead to the destabilization of its own 12-million-strong Kurdish community – a problem shared by Iran, Syria and Armenia, each of which has its Kurdish enclave.

The Kurdish problem also touches increasingly on Europe, which is bracing for a tidal wave of 50,000 starving Kurdish refugees mostly from Iraq, but also from Turkey, believed to be heading for Europe in the coming weeks to join the thousands already settled there.

The 900 Kurdish refugees who landed on French shores in February and the 1000 smuggled into Italy this week are causing major political disruptions. The European Union, for its part, fears Washington will insist on Turkey’s acceptance as a member without demanding compliance with European human rights demands as regards its Kurdish minority. To mollify the Europeans, Ankara has granted a stay of execution for Abdullah Ocalan, head of the terrorist group, the Kurdish Workers Party – PKK, until the European Court of Human Rights hears his case.

A certain American ally is now in two minds about its support for US strategy.

As to the dissidents, the vice president came away from his meeting with Saudi leaders crown prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz and intelligence chief Prince Nayyef bin Abdulaziz in Jeddah with the conviction that not all was lost. Abdullah appeared ready to give Washington a hearing. Cheney thereupon handed him an invitation to visit President Bush at his private ranch in Crawford, Texas in mid-April.

Cheney calculated that the Saudi royals are the linchpin of the Arab and European bloc’s stance. If Abdullah can be won round to the Bush plan of action, then the wall of resistance raised by their fellow Arab rulers and the European Union can be surmounted. He therefore advised the president to follow the Saudi ruler’s visit with a grand tour of Europe in mid-May, before his Moscow summit with Vladimir Putin on May 25.

He also advised the president to carry out some urgent fence mending in Europe. In London, the first stop of his tour, the vice president gained the impression that European-US discord in this and other issues had become grave enough to pose a threat to NATO unity and urged him to carry out hurried repairs.

On the flip side of the coin, DEBKA-Net-Weekly ‘s sources say US policymakers are aware that delaying the assault on Iraq by several weeks presents hazards. Taliban and al Qaeda forces will be encouraged to redouble their attacks on US and allied forces in Afghanistan and win time for orchestrating fresh violence against America.

What most alarms US officials, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly ‘s counter-terrorism experts, is the prospect of Iraqi-al Qaeda collusion. Once Baghdad rumbles the Bush administration’s plan not only conquer Iraq but partition it, the two may join forces for a campaign of terror inside the United States that could dwarf the September 11 assaults.

It is this menace that puts the nuclear option on the table. (See next article.)

American officials are seriously taking into account the possibility of nuclear or bio-terrorism in US cities. That was the backdrop to Tenet’s comments to the Senate armed services committee on Tuesday, March 19, when he said: “But our major near-term concern is the possibility that Saddam might gain access to fissile material.” Radioactive fissile material could be loaded into a conventional bomb and detonated in an American city as a “dirty bomb” spreading radioactive materials over a large area and rendering it uninhabitable for decades or longer.

Tenet told Congress in February that he feared the al Qaeda had been seeking fissile material to make such an explosive. He admitted it is a nightmare scenario for the CIA and the FBI.

Tenet pointed out that Saddam and Osama bin Laden, both Sunni Muslims, were capable of putting aside their differences for ad hoc collaboration against common foes, such as the United States and the Saudi royal house.

Postponing the US offensive against Iraq will give these terrorist elements space for a better-organized and more comprehensive strike. But Cheney and Bush also believe the delay may also be useful for detection and preparation – if not prevention. One scenario sketched in Washington is that the terror planners may also decide to hold their hand to see if America does in the final analysis go through with its operational plans.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly ‘s military and counter-terrorism experts perceive the White House switch from limited, localized assaults on terror – such as those waged in Afghanistan and the Philippines – to a comprehensive Middle East-Gulf-East Africa campaign hinging on the Iraq offensive, as moving America’s war on terror onto a truly global plane. The military operations to come will inevitably have a seismic effect on the world’s geopolitical and geo-strategic map.

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