Saddam Eyes Endgame, Gathers in His Elite Forces
The Iraq war is resolving itself into a battle of wits whose lines are deliberately blurred by the bravado, ambiguous maneuvers and half-truths propagated by both sides. The protagonists are US General Tommy Franks and Saddam Hussein. The score on Day 12 of the war is even. debkafile‘s intelligence sources and military analysts stress that both are perfectly aware that the war will end in an American battlefield victory. With an eye on the endgame, the two are maneuvering over its cost.DEBKA Special Map shows positions north of Baghdad.
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Franks’ goal is a victory with the lowest number of American casualties, whereas Saddam, who has no inhibitions about the human cost to his army and people, seeks to extract from the conflict enough leverage to dictate the conditions for his and his sons’ survival.
Franks commands US military preponderance.
Saddam owns the chemical, biological and nuclear weaponry for making his defeat a black day of double-digit American war casualties and deadly fallout for Iraq’s neighbors, Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
This standoff decided General Franks on Day 12 of the war to decelerate the lightning movement of coalition columns towards Baghdad in favor of cautious progress, even at the price of creating the impression of a calculated pause in the advance.
Saddam, in contrast, after thrusting units of his Special Republican Guards into frontal clashes with the spearheads of the advancing American columns – while also resorting to suicide-killer and other terrorist tactics – suddenly on March 31 pulled his forces back to the Baghdad region.
That same afternoon, according to debkafile‘s military and intelligence sources, orders went out to the Baghdad Division of the Special Republican Guards, fighting on the southern reaches of the Tigris in central Iraq, to turn round and redeploy on a line north of al Kut – without however destroying the river bridges.
What is intended by this step is not clear. It may be meant to lure American forces into crossing the bridges and entering al Kut, where they will face an onslaught like the one they encountered at Nasiriya last week. That may be the moment for Iraq to let loose against the trapped American troops with weapons of mass destruction.
Another two Special Republican Guards Divisions, Adnan and Nebuchadnezzar, formerly posted in the northern and western regions, were drawn south. Adnan is retreating from Baiji towards Tikrit; Nebuchadnezzar, from western Iraq towards Falluja – both just north of Baghdad. The 2nd Armed Division of the 1st Corps has withdrawn from Kirkuk to a southern line that keeps the oil city and its oil fields well within artillery range. The Iraqi 5th Corps also appeared Sunday to be preparing to abandon the second northern oil city of Mosul.
These movements tighten the ring thrown by Saddam’s elite and most loyal combat troops around his regime centers at Baghdad and Tikrit.
They confront Franks with three choices:
1. To order the American columns to dog the steps of the retreating Iraqi divisions.
2. To wait and see how far back the Iraqi forces move into the Baghdad region, the while keeping up heavy round-the-clock air attacks on the capital.
3. To deploy the “Screaming Eagles” of the 101st Airborne Division for surprise sorties against Iraqi formations.
On another front, the Sunni Saddam is striving to enlist a powerful weapon, the rival Shiah, Iraq’s largest population segment.
debkafile‘s intelligence sources report that, Sunday, March 30, Iran’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei directed Iraqi Shiites not to rise up against Saddam Hussein or help the US-UK coalition topple his regime. The order was conveyed through their leaders – the Tehran-based SCIRI (Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq) and the Dawa Party. The Tehran government’s calculus was simple: The Shiites can afford to stand aside while the Iraqis and Americans spill each other’s blood. The Shiites will gather the spoils whoever comes out on top.
Saddam, picking up fast on the Tehran-Shiite strategy, directed his spokesmen to start using Shiite terminology. The Iraqi officer who blew himself up to murder four American soldiers near Najef was posthumously renamed Al-Husayn Ben Ali after the son of the first Iraqi Shiite leader who lived in the Karbala region in the seventh century. This gesture was aimed at making the suicide bomber a martyr honored by the Shiites.
The battle two Iraqi elite divisions, the SRG’s Al Medina and Hamourabi, are waging west of Karbala with the US 3rd Infantry and 101st Airborne Divisions is being likened by Iraqi media to the celebrated battle of Karbala of October 10, 680, in which the family of Ali, descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, was butchered by the followers of the Sunni Omayyads. The Shiites lost the historic battle, but it sanctified Ali and his offspring as founding fathers of the Shia sect.
It is hard for the American psy-op machine to get a handle on these arcane yet tidal semantic currents or fit the coalition message into their powerful religious context. In the race for the hearts of the Shiites who make up more than half of Iraq’s population Saddam has the advantage of being able to manipulate these nuances, leaving coalition forces to address the Shiites in what sounds to them like an alien tongue.
The price for this unfamiliarity with shifting local mores was paid on Sunday, March 30, when British forces launched Operation James in the Basra region and failed to make headway after finding themselves let down by the predominantly Shiite citizenry. For Basra’s Shiites, the Imam Ali is clearly a far more potent icon than 007.
March 30 saw additional pivotal developments in the war.
1. The coalition’s victory at the “huge terrorist facility” in northern Iraq was understandably played up by Gen. Franks and General Richard Myers, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. Truth to tell, the battle was pretty well decided in advance when, on Friday, March 28, Jamat al-Islamiyeh, one of the two Islamic terror groups ruling the extremist Kurdish enclave north of Halabje, announced its dispersal. The second group, Ansar al Islami, known for its links to al Qaeda and Iraqi military intelligence, was previously decimated by systematic US cruise missile bombardments.
Jalal Talabani’s Kurdish militia therefore met with little resistance when its fighters went into Ansar villages. They quickly finished off the remnants. The last few survivors fled across the border to Iran.
2. Notwithstanding the redeployment of Iraqi forces outside the northern oil city of Kirkuk, the Kurds are for the moment keeping their promise to the Americans to stay out of the city and its oil fields. The Erdogan government has threatened a Turkish invasion of northern Iraq if any Kurds set foot in Kirkuk, even at the risk of a bloody clash with Kurdish fighters.
3. Syrian President Bashar Assad is toying with brinkmanship and may go too far. After the hands-off warning from US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld failed to take effect, secretary of state Colin Powell weighed in Sunday, March 30, to inform Damascus that it will be responsible for its “choices and consequences”. This warning was issued after the Palestinian Jihad Islami Damascus-based leader, Shalah Ramadan, called on the Iraqi ambassador and announced that his organization had sent from the Syrian capital to Baghdad a brigade of suicide fighters.
Syria is therefore not only providing Saddam Hussein with his only corridor for importing war materials but also fighting strength. The moment is therefore nearing for Washington to take action against Syria and Lebanon. Since the Jihad Islami is dominated and funded by Tehran, Iran may also find itself in American sights at some stage of the war.
4. Prime minister Ariel Sharon continues to keep Israelis in the dark and confused about the war in Iraq and its implications for the country. Sunday, he ordered officials and officers to stop voicing opinions on the subject. Foreign minister Silvan Shalom, before he left for Washington, was told to refrain from touching on the war or the “road map” in his talks with US officials. It is hard therefore to see what the point of those talks would be. Because of this prime ministerial ban, some minister have begun leaking fragments from the briefings they receive at closed cabinet sessions – usually out of context – which leaves the public more at sea and misinformed than ever.