New Warfront Opens in Iraq Three Months before Handover

In the last 24 hours, Shiite radicals of Baghdad and southern Iraq have gone on the warpath, vying with the Sunni Triangle’s al Qaeda and Baathist guerrillas in anti-US violence. One year after ending the combat phase of the Iraq war, the US-led coalition finds itself fighting therefore on the two fronts.
Monday, April 5, US forces opened a major offensive called Vigilant Resolve against Iraqi guerrilla-al Qaeda strongholds in Falluja and Ramadi, leaving many casualties. They quickly blocked highways linking the two towns to Baghdad and the Jordanian frontier.
On their second warfront, US forces counter-attacked the illegal Mehdi Army militia of young firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, 31, to nip his rebellion in the bud before it developed into a generalized civil conflagration. US administrator Paul Bremer thereupon declared Sadr an outlaw and a threat to the security of Iraq.
In a day and a night, 9 coalition troops and nearly 50 Iraqis died and Sadr supporters had seized a number of police stations and public buildings, including the governor’s office in British-controlled Basra in the south and Kufa near Najef, where the worst outbreak took place Sunday, April 4. There, in a three-hour gun battle, 2 coalition troops – one American and one El Salvadorean – were killed and 20 injured, while Iraqi Shiites attempting to storm the Spanish-led garrison lost 20 dead and 150 injured. Similar confrontations flared in Amara and Nasseriyah.
Before Monday morning, Mehdi militiamen using grenade launchers and small arms, attempted to seize police stations in Baghdad’s Shiite slum district, killing 7 US troops and injuring 24. Two hours later, US forces counter-attacked on ground and by helicopter, leaving 24 Iraqis dead and 74 wounded.
US-led coalition troops are therefore embattled in most of southern and central Iraq, from Basra in the south up to Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle. Western Iraq and the Kurdish-ruled north are relatively calm although Iraqi guerrillas still operate there too.
Al-Sadr, enjoining his followers “terrorize the enemy”, claimed the protest was sparked by the arrest of his aide, Mustapha Yacoubi, for the murder last year of pro-US cleric Ayatollah Abdul Majid Khoei, who was hacked to death in a Najef mosque. The radicals also railed against the 60-day closure of the Sadrist newspaper Hawaza accused of inciting anti-US violence by false information.
The two incidents, three months before Iraqi is scheduled to be handed over to Iraqi sovereignty, are marginal. The real cause underlining the Sadr rebellion is brought to light by debkafile‘s intelligence and counter-terror sources. They stress that it was far from spontaneous. Indeed it was prepared well in advance to at the behest of Tehran – with the collaboration of Damascus and the Hizballah – by the Shiite master terrorist Imad Mughniyeh. Its purpose: to trigger Iran’s Spring Offensive against the Americans in Iraq.
Sunday night, the young radical cleric al Sadr told cheering followers in Kufa: “From now on we are the beating arm of the Hizballah and Hamas in Iraq”. The crowds, raising clenched fists, declared: “The occupation is over! Sadr is our ruler!”
Our military analysts read this as a battle cry – not only to launch the young Shiite cleric’s bid for power in the whole of Iraq – but also for spreading the unrest around the Middle East at large. The Lebanese Hizballah, which controls the most effective military-terrorist force in the region and is heavily armed with an array of missiles and artillery, will not want to sit on the sidelines; likewise the Hamas and its Gaza-based “military arm”, Izz e-Din al-Qassam. However, both must be guided in their next steps by the Iranian leadership topped by Ali Khamenei and the Syrian president Bashar Assad who have been holding separate emergency round the clock conferences in the last few hours.
A decision by the two governments, collaborators thus far, to continue to operate together will be bad news for the spiraling Iraqi crisis.
In March 2003, days after the American invasion of Iraq, Tehran sent al-Sadr into the country, well-padded with Iranian weapons, intelligence, combatants and cash, which are still on tap. However, the Iranians may feel they are still in sufficient control to decide whether to go forward and back his anti-American campaign to the bitter end, or hold back and cash in on their gains. According to debkafile‘s sources in Tehran, the ayatollahs will be guided by two considerations:
1. Will the violence incurred until now push Washington hard enough to abandon its international campaign against Iran’s nuclear program? What Tehran is after is US assent to its continuing enrichment of uranium for military purposes up to the point where all the components of a nuclear bomb are in hand but left disassembled. If the Bush administration agrees to let this pass, Tehran will call al-Sadr and his militia to heel and instruct him to come to an arrangement with the Americans for calm.
2. The Mehdi Army is riddled with hundreds of Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers and agents, dominated by the most extremist and belligerent elements in the Iranian regime. If ordered to hold their fire, these fire-eating combatants may well switch their loyalties to the most implacable factions of the Revolutionary Guards to which Mughniyeh also belongs.
The decisions facing the Assad regime are equally complex. While Tehran may believe it has acquired a nuclear bargaining chip in the Sadr rebellion, Damascus may use it as leverage to fend off US economic sanctions and force Washington accept the Hizballah and Palestinian terrorist organizations based in Damascus as legitimate arms of a national liberation movement, rather than terrorists. If that acceptance is forthcoming, Bashar Assad could promise – once again – to seal its Lebanese and Iraqi frontiers and not permit Hizballah contingents to cross into Iraq and join the Mehdi Army offensive against the coalition. He might even offer to prevent the Hizballah from opening a new front against Israel.
However, the Syrian ruler is not a free agent. In the summer of 2003, he allowed Mughniyeh to cross Syria into Iraq from his hiding place in Lebanon to program the Shiite offensive. Last November, he was allowed to return by the same route. With the onset of the Shiite uprising, Mughniyeh took command of Hizballah forces, pushing Hassan Nasrallah into second place. Damascus can therefore no longer act on its own.
In the first hours of what looks like evolving into the second Iraq war, it is impossible to predict how the combat will develop or where the coalition and the radical Shiites are heading. The fact that the US Iraq command decided despite the Shiite flareup to go ahead with Operation Vigilant Resolve in the Sunni Triangle to avenge the Fallujah lynching of four Americans and attack that killed 5 US marines Wednesday, March 31, indicates that the United States is determined both to fight the Sunnis and to clamp a tight lid down on the Shiite threat to kindle the flames of civil war.
The big question is: why did the Bush administration and US command fail to heed the operational bond developing for ten months between Iran, Syria and the Hizballah and the deployment of one of the world’s most vicious troublemakers, Imad Mughniyeh, in Shiite Iraq last fall? The transfer of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction to Syria between January 10 to March 10 2003 was ignored in the same way with unfortunate consequences.

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