The explosive start to the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan struck Baghdad like a bolt from the blue. The US-led coalition authorities in Iraq were caught unawares by the 48-hour campaign of death against target after target, American, international and Iraqi. Its most painful aspect was its exposure of the large hole in the ability of US intelligence to penetrate the command level of Saddam Hussein’s loyalist forces.
More than six months after his overthrow, the United States doesn’t have a clue to Saddam’s whereabouts, operations or intentions. US deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz was lucky enough to escape two attacks, the first in Tikrit and then, Sunday, October 26, in Baghdad, from an audacious missile strike against the heavily-guarded al-Rashid hotel in Baghdad. Lieutenant-colonel Charle Buehring, the senior counter-terrorism adviser to chief civil administrator Paul Bremer, lost his life.
The next day, suicide car bombers hit Red Cross headquarters in the Iraqi capital and targeted four police stations. Monday’s toll, put later by Iraqi police sources at 57 dead and more than 220 injured, and confirmation of 233 attacks on coalition forces from October 22-29, provided bloody evidence that Saddam Hussein had succeeded in reconstituting his national chain of command (as reported in last week’s DEBKA-Net-Weekly 130).
That US intelligence agencies lack the information for severing that chain is all the more embarrassing in view of the thousands of raids carried out by massive US forces against Saddam diehard bastions, in which thousands of army officers, former government officials and Saddam’s supporters and relatives have been detained and interrogated.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report the belief that the Ramadan guerrilla offensive was the work of a special operations wing, called the “1920 Revolution Brigades”, which is comprised of Saddam loyalists and based in the Baghdad area.
The name relates to the Shiite insurgents who rebelled against the British occupation of Iraq in 1922. While the original Brigades are defunct and Shiites no part of his campaign, Saddam’s tacticians have craftily recycled the old name to lend religious tone to the resistance and so cement its connections with Al Qaeda and Saudi fighters who have flocked to his cause. It is also meant to show Iraq’s fencing-sitting Shiite majority that the deposed Iraqi ruler is willing to go out on a limb to challenge the occupying force in 2003, while present-day Shiites are failing to live up to the glories of their past revolt against an invader.
Saddam’s “Brigades” are made up of two segments – diehard field commanders who do the fighting and intelligence officers who secure hideouts and provide the tools of assault, explosives-packed ambulances, car bombs and missile launchers. Some of the suicide killers are Iraqi Baathist hardliners; others Arab recruits from foreign countries, Syria, the Lebanese Hizballah, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Pakistan.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror experts reveal these suicide bomb attacks are set up three months in advance to allow time for intensive preparations, training and intelligence-gathering. Dry runs are staged to familiarize the “martyrs”, especially the foreigners, with the geography of their field of operation, Baghdad, a large city of 5 million, and the routes to their targets.
Encouraged by the impact of their early Ramadan offensive, Saddam’s brigade commanders are eagerly planning escalation to the next stage of their campaign that will send missiles streaking towards US and other Western targets in the capital. Electronic intercepts of Iraqi websites have picked up word of a missile called Ramadan-1. Information about this weapon is sketchy, little beyond the presumption that it is a surface-to-surface missile with a short range of 10 to 12 km (six to seven miles). It is hard to tell if the missile is stored in one of the tunnel caches Saddam laid in in advance of the US invasion or a homemade Hizballah product smuggled into Iraq from Syria.
Evidence of a Hizballah role of this kind in the pro-Saddam guerrilla movement would strongly indicate that terrorist activities in Baghdad and Israel are synchronized.
The intercepted electronic messages also mention anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. These have been used before in Baghdad’s international airport compound.
Straight after Monday’s suicide attacks, Washington appealed yet again to Syria to seal its frontier crossings into Iraq with military units. Back in mid-September, Syria did indeed dispatch troops to the frontier in response to American demands. However they were given secret orders not to interfere with the guerrilla traffic in and out of Iraq. Now Damascus is not bothering to go through the motions again, claiming this time it is helpless to take effective blocking action on a border stretching for hundreds of kilometers across the desert. The expanse is so vast and empty, that the guerrillas easily dodge round the Syrian patrols.
While Baghdad is a very large metropolis that defies absolute security, nonetheless some of the actions of US military and intelligence arms are puzzling.
Why were US forces in Baghdad replaced by two fresh divisions, the First and Fourth, both unfamiliar with the city, just before the start of the Muslim holiday? Not only were they unwarned, they were operating in terra incognita, as was evident by the confusion reigning among US officers and enlisted men before and after the Rashid hotel attack and subsequent bomb attacks. The men also seemed to lack the proper training for dealing with major terrorist attacks. The failure of communications between US intelligence officers and their Iraqi counterparts was particularly jarring.
Why, too, was deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz’s mission to Iraq scheduled for the sensitive period of Ramadan eve? He was bound to become an irresistible target at a volatile period in the Muslim calendar. And why did US administrator Paul Bremer choose this of all times to absent himself in Washington? Even Middle East tyros understood that his absence would fuel an already unstable situation.