The U.S. military said on Thursday, Oct. 19, it was reviewing strategy in Baghdad where U.S. reinforcements have failed to halt spiraling violence, and expressed grave concern about mounting troop deaths.
Earlier this week, admissions as to how sharply the situation in Iraq is deteriorating were forced out of American leaders. Wednesday, Oct. 18, President George W. Bush conceded in an interview with ABC television the accuracy of comparing the current fighting in Iraq with the 1968 Tet offensive, which turned out to be America’s coup de grace in the Vietnam War.
Talking to George Stephanopoulos, he pointed to “…the stepped up level of violence” and the impending election. “Al Qaeda is still very active in Iraq,” he said. “They believe that if they can create enough chaos, the American people will grow sick and tired of the Iraq effort and cause the government to withdraw.”
On the day of the interview, October’s US military death toll in Iraq rose to 73, the highest since the battle of Falluja in Nov. 2004. The number of Iraqis who lost their lives in the three weeks of October was 775, an average of 43 a day.
The day before, secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld came out with this tortured oxymoron: “The US military is too strong to lose the war in Iraq but ultimately political solutions will be needed to win.”
In Washington and Baghdad, a rise in violence was predicted for the Muslim fast month of Ramadan, but DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources in Iraq attribute the surge in US military deaths to two changes in deployment which have made them more vulnerable: More American troops are out on the streets of Baghdad for a determined effort to stem the terror spiral in the capital; and reinforcements are deployed in the troubled Anbar province of western Iraq to take advantage of the combat momentum generated by the willingness of Sunni Arab tribal chiefs to rid their lands of al Qaeda.
These two steps, costly in American lives, have met with mixed results. The level of violence in Baghdad remains painfully high and in Anbar, al Qaeda, while not holding territory, is giving ferocious battle and inflicting losses, not overly discouraged by the aid the Sunni tribes are proffering US combat units.
Iraq cannot reduce violence on its own without purging its armed forces
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources report that the heads of the Muslim Army, one of the main Iraqi insurgent coalitions, offered last week to throw in their lot with the US-Sunni tribal offensive against al Qaeda on two conditions:
1. US Congress must first approve a measure ordering all American forces to depart Iraq at the end of the war.
2. Congress must also underwrite an American commitment not to retain a US military presence or bases in Iraq after their forces leave the country.
Until these two conditions are met, Sunni insurgent violence will persist, said the Muslim Army chiefs.
When broken down to cogent elements, the Rumsfeld statement means that the US military is strong as long as the men stay in the protection of their bases. But the moment the troops come out and fight, the army may not be in danger of actually losing the Iraq war but will suffer casualties that are unsustainable for long.
The defense secretary also said that US training of security forces in Iraq had been “rushed,” but that “placing US trainers within the Iraqi police force would gradually boost Iraq’s ability to reduce violence on its own.”
This statement skirted round the main problem plaguing Iraqi forces, which is not the lack of training – rushed or otherwise; it is the heavy penetration of the Iraqi army, security forces and police by militias and sectarian death squads. Under heavy pressure from Washington to alleviate the sectarian warfare engulfing Iraq by purging these forces of these elements, prime minister Nouri Maliki this week announced the removal of the two most senior national police commanders from their posts at heads of Iraq’s special police commandoes and public order brigade to administrative jobs.
Both had been accused of being heavily infiltrated by Shiite militias.
Adding to the suspense, Baghdad was full of rumors this week of an impending US-backed military coup to install a junta of five generals and politicians.
They were also fed by reports that the Iraq Study Group headed by former US secretary of state James Baker was about to send in a report which recommended redeploying US troops outside Iraq’s borders and reaching out to Iran and Syria for a helping hand to overcome the Iraqi predicament. Our Washington sources say his main drift is that the US army will hand over regions from which it withdraws to control of local armed elements rather than federal forces. Some of those elements maintain traditional ties with Syria or Iran. This recommendation, if accepted by the Bush administration, would weaken central government in Baghdad.
These disquieting reports and the rising spiral of US and Iraqi fatalities drove prime minister Maliki to turn to Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and the radical Moqtada Sadr and plea for them to support the government’s efforts to attain national consensus and quell the sectarian violence.
As we reported in DEBKA-Net-Weekly 273, of Oct. 13, sections of Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia have broken away from his authority. But, like the Sunni Muslim Army, he too would make his support conditional on guarantees for the departure of US forces from Iraq.
Iran holds Sistani hostage in his home
Sistani’s situation is complicated. More than 80% of the world’s Shiite Muslims, and 90% of Iraqi sect adherents, respect him as the highest theological authority and would not think of disobeing his decrees. And on paper, he also controls the Iraqi Shiite business empire which yields $1 billion in annual profits.
But Sistani does not defer to Iran.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iraq sources report that because the rulers of Tehran do not dare touch him or his following for fear of a huge outcry, they have taken a leaf out of Saddam Hussein’s book and are holding him and his assets to siege.
Quite simply, Iranian interests have bought up all the buildings surrounding Sistani’s residence in the holy Shiite town of Najef south of Baghdad. This is a gentle description of how the Iranians operated, according to sources in Baghdad and Najef. In fact, Iranian thugs drove hundreds of families out of their homes for derisory purchasing prices and have lodged in their place 500 Iranian intelligence ministry agents, imported with their families.
These agents have set up armed checkpoints around Sistani’s dwelling. Iranian officers detain and search the grand ayatollah’s visitors and often bar their entry. The eminent Shiite cleric is today the virtual hostage of Iranian intelligence.
His plight is no secret in Baghdad or Washington, but no one has moved to release the cleric from siege for fear of harm coming to him.
This is only one symptom of Iraq’s precipitous decline.
But this week too, the Baker recommendations seemed to be gaining traction for a comprehensive Middle East peace momentum, impelled by Saudi Arabia and containing slots for an endgame in Iraq, progress in Lebanon and an Arab-Israeli accommodation.
Sources in Washington told DEBKA-Net-Weekly Thursday, Oct. 19, that Saudi leaders are willing for the first time to openly meet Israeli representatives provided they are willing to discuss the Saudi peace plan adopted by the Beirut Arab summit in August 2005.
This overture comes on the heels of another Saudi initiative for an Iraqi-Sunni-Shiite reconciliation conference due to take place in Mecca over the coming weekend.
Lebanon enters the equation too.
After visiting Riyadh, Lebanese Shiite leader and parliament speaker Nabih Berri said Thursday that the time had come for peace negotiations with Israel, on the basis of that same Saudi Middle East peace plan, which offered Israel normal relations with all Arab states for withdrawing to pre-1967 borders and discussing a solution of the Arab refugee problem.
These moves may all end up in a blind alley like many such plans before. But before they do, certain Middle East leaders may seize the opportunity of picking up the kudos attached to active involvement in a peace process, in order to haul themselves out of their personal political pits.