Saddam`s “Muhammad’s Army” Behind Chinook Disaster
On November 2, 15 US troops died and 21were wounded – the highest US toll in a single enemy attack since the Iraq war began – when their Chinook transport helicopter was shot down over Falujja 35 miles from Baghdad international airport. Witnesses reported seeing two missiles streaking towards the American helicopters. The chopper that was hit was part of a formation of two Chinook transports, each carrying 32-35 soldiers. A 15th US soldiers was killed on patrol in Baghdad. The same day, two US civilian contractors died when their civilian convoy ran over a bomb in Falujja. Their burning vehicle was surrounded by a jubilant local mob.
At the end of this black Sunday, US administrator Paul Bremer said somberly to CNN, “We’ve mingled our blood together with the Iraqis in this war and we’ll stay the course. He echoed the message of perseverance sounded by President George W. Bush the day before and by secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld immediately after the downing of the Chinook: “This is a tragic day for Americans but our efforts to secure Iraq are necessary and will continue.”
Asked who the assailants were, the US administrator noted that 90 percent of the attacks on coalition forces took place in the Sunni Muslim Triangle between Ramadi and northern Baghdad, whereas the entire southern Iraq and most of the north were largely peaceful with an economy and services returning to normal. The hostile forces most active in Falujja were, he said, “fedayeen and foreign terrorists”. Most al Qaeda and other foreigners infiltrated Iraq through Syria. Damascus, said Bremer dryly, could do a better job of preventing this traffic than it is doing. He applied the same message to Iran.
Two features are emerging from the escalating wave of violence besetting Iraq:
1. The US military command in Iraq headed by Gen. Ricardo Sanchez is determined to pursue a course that he believes will lead to Saddam Hussein’s capture.
2. US ground operations continue to go forward without adequate intelligence support. In fact, Saddam’s guerrillas appear to have access to a better picture of US troop movements than the Americans command in relation to the Iraqi resistance.
debkafile‘s military and intelligence sources reveal that, during the week between the initial rocket attack on Baghdad’s al Rashid Hotel on October 26 where US deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz was staying, and the shooting down of the Chinook helicopter, American authorities in Iraq were in secret negotiation with Saddam’s number two, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, on terms for his surrender. The talks were brokered by the Kurdish PDK commander Jalal Talabani, who is a member of the interim Governing Council and reputed to be well connected with the Americans and members of Saddam Hussein’s circle alike.
Al-Douri’s key demand was for an American guarantee not to hand him over to Kuwait, where he is under death sentence for atrocities committed during the Iraqi invasion of August 1990. This condition was rejected. Al-Douri remained at large in the battle arena. He is believed to be close to one of the most dangerous units of the pro-Saddam guerrilla force, which is known as Muhammad’s Army.
On August 18, debkafile revealed the existence of Muhammed’s Army: “This group of Iraqi Baathists operates in the guise of Muslim fundamentalists. They are concentrated around Baghdad international airport and the cluster of military airfields in Habania and western Iraq, H-1, H-2 and H-3, armed with shoulder-launched Sam 7 anti-air missiles. In July, they tried to down a US fighter plane and a C-130 transport but missed both.
Our military sources now add to this initial disclosure: Muhammad’s Army operates in the Baghdad-Ramadi-Falujja section of the Sunni Triangle and specializes in ground-air missile warfare. Of late, its ranks have been swelled by Chechen and al Qaeda terrorists infiltrating Iraq to fight the Americans – usually, as Bremer noted, through Syria.
While the US administrator refrained from naming those responsible for downing the Chinook Sunday, debkafile‘s military sources discern the hand of “Muhammad’s Army.”
Particularly instructive is the confusion surrounding the episode. Some sources reported that the chopper was hit on its way to land at Baghdad international airport carrying inbound US troops returning from a rest and recreation trip outside Iraq; others contended the helicopter had just taken off and was outbound from Baghdad. Military experts were quick to ask how the two-helicopter formation came to be flying so close to Falluja, knowing it to be a dangerous guerrilla stronghold.
Piecing these contradictions together with its exclusive data, debkafile‘s military sources maintain that the Chinooks were in fact carrying up to 70 US fighting men on a secret anti-insurgency mission in the Sunni Triangle. The Iraqis got wind of their flight route and prepared an anti-air missile ambush. The bomb attack on a US civilian convoy in the center of Falluja, in which another two Americans were killed, was part of the same ambuscade. Saddam loyalist forces expected the American raid to come either as an air drop or a ground assault – or a combination of the two.
Further escalations of violence were presaged in the leaflets anti-coalition forces distributed over the weekend. They stressed their intention of striking out in four directions:
— Iraqis would be called out on a general strike.
— Iraqi parents were advised to keep their children home from class as schools were to be targeted as part of an overall offensive to disrupt efforts by the US administration and interim governing council to restore normal services.
— Iraqis collaborating with the coalition would be targeted for assassination.
— Iraqis were summoned to join up with Muhammad’s Army.
These attacks and the contents of the leaflets were the pro-Saddam command’s response to the claims made the day before by US leaders in Baghdad.
Before Chinook Disaster
On Saturday, November 1, US administrator Paul Bremer and General Richard Sanchez, referring to the wave of bombings that hit Baghdad in the early days of Ramadan admitted it had been a rough week, but insisted that the coalition was winning the war in Iraq. Sanchez noted a shift in guerrilla tactics reflecting more regional control than before. He said, “We don’t know if Saddam Hussein was behind the latest offensive but we believe he is alive.”
(On October 27, debkafile exclusively detailed the six districts formed by Saddam strategists for the war against US and allied forces, including the names of their governors. Read Saddam Regroups, Coordinates Terror Onslaught on Baghdad further down this page.)
Approval of the $87.5bn supplemental for Iraq will make it possible to build and train 27 new Iraqi battalions in one year instead of two, the US administrator announced. Asked about the integration of army men who served the former regime, Bremer said 60 percent of the battalions already operational and 100 percent of their officers and NCOs are ex-soldiers. This week, 450 Iraqi border police graduated for service on the Syrian, Turkish and Iranian borders.
The Iraqi defense corps of 50,000 men will be doubled by March and, if the appropriations are forthcoming, increased to at least 200,000 men under arms by next September. Local militias like those of the Kurds in the north would be integrated in the national army and made responsible for regional duties.
Bremer noted that the big terrorist attacks in Baghdad and Najef since the Jordanian embassy was hit in early August were directed against Iraqis, killing hundreds. He said that local and coalition police were working together to bring about stability and security. 180 Iraqi police officers had been decorated for bravery and 300 courts were operating.
In Baghdad, the US administrator explained the curfew had been lifted last week at the request of local restaurateurs. Street crime in the capital had dropped 40 percent and there was a rush of custom after 11 pm.
Finally, the two officials announced that the coalition will speed up the transfer of authority to Iraq hands. The people would be given a timeline for this takeover.