Sharp Policy Changes Will Follow Firestorm over Iraqi PoW Abuses

The gallery of horror images rolling out of the US-run Iraqi Abu Ghraib prison onto media pages day by day – with much worse promised – has sharply altered the nature of the Iraq war, the attitudes of its combatants, the stakes held by the forces involved and the kinds of terror attacks in score. It will undoubtedly color the prosecution tactics under secret preparation for the crimes against humanity trial of deposed Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein. In Washington, the Bush presidency heads for an election on terra incognita after familiar game rules and certainties are swept away.
The radical cleric Moqtada Sadr picked up on America’s quandary in a trice – first by words, then by deeds. Friday, May 7, in a sermon at the al Kafa mosque, he dismissed the apologies of President George W. Bush for the abuses at Abu Ghraib and demanded punishment of the prison guards in kind. He reached al Kufa from his Najef stronghold past US roadblocks and troops who are advancing quietly into the city so as not to anger the Four Grand Ayatollahs.
As the Shiite cleric spoke, his aide Sheikh Abdul-Sattar al-Bahadli stood in the al-Hawi mosque of Basra and displayed documents and photos he claimed showed three Iraqi women being raped at British-run prisons. He proclaimed a jihad against British forces and announced a bounty of $350 for every British soldier captured and $150 for each one killed, while female soldiers could be kept as slaves.
A few hours earlier, Osama bin Laden was reported by an al Qaeda-linked web site to have offered 10 kilos of gold for the assassination of US administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer, any high American officers, UN secretary Kofi Annan and members of the Iraqi Governing Council.
The depictions of brutality against Iraqi prisoners by US and British guards and intelligence personnel had quickly translated into contempt on the part of two prime coalition foes.
The Iraq spillover was not evaluated in time by US or British intelligence on the spot. Hundreds of Sadr’s black-robed Mehdi Army militiamen therefore surprised British troops early Saturday, May 8, with a fresh onslaught on the strategic southern region delimited by Basra and al Amara that commands the Euphrates, the Iraq-Iran frontier and Iraq’s main oil exporting terminal. Wielding assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, the Shiite extremists were soon in control of both town centers.
debkafile‘s military sources report that Sadr employed a very simple tactic. Leaving American forces to pummel part of his strength in Najef, al Kufa’s outskirts, Baghdad’s Sadr City and Diwaniya, he divided his militia up and whisked a part to the British-controlled south where the odds against them are more favorable. Britain deploys a smaller number of troops in Iraq than the United States – 7,500 compared with 135,000 Americans – not all have urban combat training and they have no air cover.
Sadr employed the same tactic out the outset of his uprising in early April. With transit permission through Turkoman territory, the Shiite cleric then pulled his troops out of Sadr City and split them up between the Baghdad-Fallujah-Amman highway where they cut a vital US supply route – and are still present – and Ar Ramadi where they laid a surprise ambush for US marines.
Predicting Sadr’s return to this tactic did not call for the sort of “creative intelligence” cited by an American commander, particularly since Muslim warfare has not changed since Prophet Muhammed laid down a fundamental principle in the seventh century: If the enemy’s wall is unbroken and solid, don’t beat your head against it; go and strike somewhere else until there is a breach. Then go for it with all your strength.
Sadr, though much despised by American military experts, followed this tactic twice, each time gaining the advantage of surprise.
The situation in the Sunni Triangle town of Fallujah is similarly unresolved. This hotbed of violence has dropped out of the headlines in the past week and is relatively calm. But the situation does not bode well for the US Marines there. Two former generals of Saddam Hussein’s armed forces were permitted to take over and welcomed with V signs by old soldiers waving the Saddam flag, all in the uniforms and insignia of the Special Republic Guards division that was the backbone of the Saddam regime and ruling Baath. The handover was decided by the local US command and approved by ground forces commander Gen. Ricardo Sanchez and Gen. John Abizaid’s Central Command, all the way back to Washington. The US Marines were enabled to leave Fallujah after occupying it for a month and so carry out the order of the supreme commander, President Bush, to refrain from capturing Fallujah by force in view of the potentially heavy cost in civilian and military casualties.
According to the official US position, the task of the Iraqi generals under Marine command is to restore law and order to the Sunni city, disarm local guerrillas, foreign fighters and al Qaeda terrorists, and so wind up the military operation. However, according to debkafile‘s military sources, there is a large credibility disparity between this perception and reality.
1. In a region where symbols have greater potency than military or political actions, Fallujah appears to Iraqis and Arabs at large as a place from which US Marines fled and Saddam’s old generals and soldiers came marching in. In their eyes, this spells an Iraqi guerrilla victory over US Marines.
2. Al Qaeda’s Iran-based senior commanders, who smuggled into Fallujah hundreds of fighters from Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya, Yemen and Kuwait, view the outcome of the Fallujah battle as the Islamic network’s first major victory since being driven out of Afghanistan in 2001 as well as the eviction of the Marines from a Muslim city.
Bin Laden has therefore been encouraged to launch a series of paid assassinations against all the players tasked with administering Iraq’s June 30 transition to self-rule as part of an all-out effort to defeat the process.
3. The Marines on the perimeter of Fallujah cannot be said to control the city. The Iraqi generals have not succeeded in arranging a ceasefire, but rather grafted themselves onto the guerrilla-al Qaeda force, attaining a form of coexistence with them. Now and again, they report to American commanders, collect their salaries and promise to convey US demands to the guerrillas. Nothing usually comes of these demands. The Iraqi generals are at best a sort of buffer between the Marines and the insurgents, their loyalty highly ambivalent. However, this unresolved arrangement could well serve as a prototype for other Iraqi cities. If it spreads, the US military will find control of main Iraqi centers gradually slipping out of their grasp. This raises the question of what did defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld mean when he told the Senate Armed Forces Committee Friday that, despite the abuses of Iraqi prisoners, “We are on the right track.”
Following the Abu Ghraib scandal, the US president may have to rethink the launch plan for his Great Middle East Initiative at the NATO summit late June in Istanbul.
Lectures from the Bush administration on democracy and Western values might not go down too well with nations and governments regaled by every television screen in the world with inhuman scenes from US-run Iraqi prisons.
debkafile‘s Washington sources report that, the day before Rumsfeld gave his testimony to congress, Jordan’s King Abdullah visited the White House. As one of America’s staunchest allies, he had hoped to persuade the coming Arab summit in Tunis to collectively condemn suicidal terrorism. For the sake of a unanimous vote, the monarch advised the president to administer a softener to Syria in the form of a start on some sanctions.
The eruption of the Iraqi prisoner crisis has forced Abdullah shelve his proposal for a more propitious moment and the Bush administration to reassess the timing of sanctions against Damascus.
As for Saddam’s public trial on war crimes and crimes against humanity, our sources report that the administration had secretly prepared three leading witnesses for the prosecution who were to have testified to the ex-ruler’s brutal practices: former foreign minister Ali Sabri, ex-information minister Mohammed Saeed Sahaf and ex-defense minister Hashem Mahmid Sultan – all chosen because they were close to Saddam in the last days of his rule. It is now feared that the impact of their testimony will be disappointing in the light of the powerful mages from Abu Ghraib prison since his downfall.
The US presidential campaign has likewise taken an unexpected turn. debkafile‘s Washington sources report exclusively that, as recently as ten days ago, Senator John Kerry’s campaign staff had resolved to drop Iraq as its focal issue after receiving startling new intelligence data. North Korea, the Democratic team had discovered, did not have only two nuclear bombs as generally believed but eight, all operational. Kerry would have argued that the Bush White House, because of its obsession with Saddam Hussein’s overthrow and Iraq – where no WMD was found, had neglected a front far more hazardous to the security of the United States and its allies, i.e. North Korea’s expanding nuclear arsenal.
The development of the Iraqi prisoner crisis persuaded the Democratic presidential contender to abandon his North Korean strategy. The imagery from Abu Ghraib has proved even more radioactive in its effect on America than eight North Korean nuclear bombs.

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