Iraqi Spring Offensive Hijacked by Iran Forces Reshuffle of US Middle East Cards

US president George W. Bush’s appointment book for the remainder of April reflects a Middle East without Iraq. Two days after seeing Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in Crawford on Monday, April 12, he meets Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon in Washington and Abdullah King of Jordan on Friday, April 21. No Iraqi leader joins the procession of Middle East visitors because no suitable prime minister for the new federal republic of Iraq is so far visible. Although Bush would have preferred to devote the week to the crisis besetting Iraq, he cannot cancel visits that were scheduled before the April 3 outbreak of Iraq hostilities. This seems to indicate a lack of intelligence forewarning. The White House must have been warned in general terms that a Sunni-Shiite spring offensive was in the offing – but without a date and word of the tactical coordination forged between the radical Shiite Moqtada Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia and the Al Farouk Battalions, which is made up mainly of crack troops of Saddam’s old Special Republican Guards plus some al Qaeda elements.
President Bush will therefore be too preoccupied with the more pressing Iraq crisis to give his fully attention to the problems of Egypt, Israel and Jordan, however important. He will prefer to quiz his guests closely on the knowledge and evaluations of their intelligence services on Iraq.
For this reason, debkafile‘s Washington sources report, Bush is looking forward most of all to a visitor from outside the Middle East, British premier Tony Blair. Their lunch date on Friday, April 16, will in fact be a counsel of war. The two will chart the next political and military moves for Iraq as well as conferring on other Middle East issues. Mubarak, Sharon and King Abdullah know this as well as anyone. Therefore, all three tried to impress the British leader with their views in advance of his conference with Bush.
Alive to European and British sensitivities, President Bush ordered US commanders to slow down their offensives in Iraq over the weekend and so stem Iraqi civilian bloodshed. He knows Blair needs time to prepare domestic opinion for the sudden rise in Iraqi civilian deaths to 800 – 600 in Fallujah alone – in the space of one week’s combat, and more than 2,000 injured.
The role Iran has played in this flare-up will no doubt figure large in the Bush-Blair parley. The president left much of the handling of the Iran issue in British hands when earlier this year he accepted Blair’s offer of a European front for handling this chestnut. Blair proposed a concerted European effort to check Iran’s advance towards nuclear weapons and halt its uranium enrichment, while at the same time laying the groundwork for a Washington-Tehran diplomatic accommodation over Iraq. However, British foreign secretary Jack Straw, who was charged with the maneuver, failed completely. Iran refused to give way on its nuclear program even though the European Union suspended a trade accord that Tehran badly wants. Instead, it marched forward defiantly in three spheres:
1. The Isfahan centrifuge plant was fully assembled and began operating in breach of a solemn Iranian undertaking to the EU and the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.
2. Work was accelerated on the heavy water reactor in Arak, 200 km southwest of Tehran, where building begins in June. This reactor will produce enough plutonium to make one nuclear weapon per year. It will enable Iran to make up the fuel shortfall created by Russian president Vladimir Putin’s promise to Bush to withhold 8000 fuel rods from the big Bushehr reactor. Bushehr is now preparing to get its fuel from Arak.
3. Through its agents, Revolutionary Guards officers and Hizballah cells in Iraq, Tehran propelled the turbulent young Shiite cleric into staging an uprising against the US-led coalition in the Shiite centers of Baghdad and southern Iraq. At the same time, Iran-based al Qaeda operatives who move in and out of Iraq through the Iranian and Syrian borders were sent to broker tactical links between Sadr’s militia and the Sunni insurgents in Falluja and Ar Ramadi. Once the flame was kindled and Sunni and radical Shiite insurgents engaged in hostilities in the first week of April, Tehran, according to debkafile‘s sources, told its agents to break away and maintain a low profile lest Washington be provoked into dealing out punishment.
That was how the Iraqi spring offensive evolved into an Iranian assault, turning US Middle East political and military strategies upside down.
This is the disarray greeting the Middle East visitors to Washington. It is the scene into which Sharon hopes to fit his plan for unilateral disengagement from the Palestinians and closure of Gaza Strip settlements.
For the time being, the prime minister is far from sure he can sell his scheme at home. Monday night, April 12, before emplaning for Washington, he stood up in Maale Adumim, a West Bank Jewish town just outside Jerusalem, and vowed to hang onto the six large urban blocs Israel has built in the territory over nearly 40 years: Ariel, Givat Zeev, Gush Etzion, Kiryat Arba and the revived Jewish Quarter of Hebron, as well as Maale Adumim. His vow did not impress. Since he stated his determination to remove Gaza Strip settlements, Sharon’s credibility with his own following has plummeted. At least one member of his cabinet sees in the latest vow an attempt to swing the Likud opposition round to his plan for the April 29 party poll(meanwhile postponed to May 2) rather than demonstrating a resolute posture for Washington’s benefit.
In any case, debkafile‘s Washington sources report, he is unlikely to bring much cheer home from his talks with Bush. Quite the reverse:
1. He is the first Israeli leader to go into a meeting with a US president without prior consultation or even knowledge of the US statement on their talks. His senor aides spent days in Washington trying for a peek at the text, to no avail. The purported US concessions flooding the media on the Palestinian refugees, the security barrier and the funding of grand Negev development schemes, have been drummed up by the prime minister’s office spin machine or simply conjecture.
2. The White House has not budged an inch from its original position that challenges Sharon to evacuate the Gaza Strip, if Israel so decides, on its own, without making claims on the United States. Nothing is being offered in exchange for this move.
3. The prime minister’s feelers to attract European support for his disengagement initiative have met with a cool response except for a flicker of interest in London. His overture had one result which he certainly did not seek. British interest in a security role in Palestinian areas, though stalled and short of attracting interest in Europe, opened a door for the Americans to walk through, out of reluctance to let the British run with this ball. Washington has accordingly resumed direct contacts with the Palestinian Authority. Yasser Arafat’s minister of information, Nabil Shaat, is invited to Washington next week to meet secretary of state Colin Powell, when only last year no Bush administration official was willing to meet any Palestinian minister.
4. The aggressiveness with which Sharon’s aides lobbied for his plan antagonized senior administration officials and even turned US ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer against it.
The day before Sharon landed in Washington, Israeli ambassador Danny Ayalon directly contradicted the Bush statement after his meeting with Mubarak. The diplomat said that disengagement cannot be part of the road map only an alternative since there is no partner to negotiate for the other side. This assertion points to deep rift existing between Washington and Jerusalem.
debkafile‘s exclusive sources reveal that, in view of his low expectations from his talks with Bush, Sharon’s advisers went in search of a breakthrough to tilt the Likud poll in favor of his plan. He asked AIPAC ex-president Steve Grossman to approach Democratic candidate John Kerry’s staff and ask him to follow the Bush communique at the end of their Wednesday talks with a separate statement of endorsement. Sharon then planned to report to Likud members that his disengagement plan had won bipartisan backing in the United States and was safe even if the Democratic candidate carried the November election.
Grossman has meanwhile heard nothing from Kerry’s staff. Our Washington sources strongly doubt that either of the two US presidential candidates, who are gearing up for the toughest stage of their race, have any interest in feigning assent on an issue on which they are as deeply divided as the Middle East conflict. Kerry can hardly grant Sharon a promise of support for an unknown quantity i.e. Wednesday’s presidential statement.

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