Iraqi prime minister Nouri Maliki has left no stone unturned, however hopeless, in his desperate drive to hold down the violence plaguing his country and break through to national reconciliation. He is spurred by the sectarian and terrorist violence which in Baghdad alone reached an all-time high this week, despite the special security measures mounted by beefed-up US and Iraqi units.
One of Maliki’s trickiest maneuvers has been to win over 16 Sunni tribal leaders for cooperation in an all-out battle to drive al Qaeda out of their hotbeds in Anbar province of western Iraq.
Two of the chieftains, Sattar al Buzayi and Hameed Farhan, announced they were behind the effort to rid the country of foreign al Qaeda elements. Farhan proposed recruiting Sunni Arab tribesmen to the army and police in Anbar. The prime minister, for his part, promised to send Iraqi forces to the province.
The sheikhs’ consent to fight al Qaeda was reached two weeks ago.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iraq sources report that that spadework for the deal brought off by Maliki was in fact carried out by US military commanders. They talked the tribal chiefs round by a promise of lavish remuneration in the multimillion dollar range, arms for the tribal combatants, financing for utilities to improve their living standards, such as a central water supply and medical services, and also a tentative proposal of regular monthly wages for tribal fighters dedicated to pressing on with the war against al Qaeda and its affiliates.
Our sources say it is too soon to celebrate this fissure in Sunni insurgent ranks. Many political issues remain outstanding, including the Sunni Arab opposition to the division of the country to federal regions. It is not the first time in the 3½ year war that Iraqi tribal chiefs have reached understandings with the Americans, only to back out at some point, often because some of the clans wanted a bigger slice of the American hand-out.
This time the Saudis are on board
There were times when the sheikhs divided their tribes into segments according to which backed the deal with the Americans, which preferred al Qaeda and which supported Baathist insurgent groups.
This time, the Americans involved in the negotiations with the chieftains are more optimistic, putting forward five reasons:
1. Washington has been more open-handed than ever before and the payouts for greasing tribal palms are handsome.
2. The passing of Abu Musab al Zarqawi and the splintering of al Qaeda into fragments before their very eyes convinced some of the sheiks that it no longer pays to keep in with their erstwhile ally.
3. Zarqawi was also in the habit of handing round funds to the Sunni tribes for their support. One of the mysteries in Iraqi and terrorist circles is what happened to Zarqawi’s private stash after he was killed by American bombers last June. There is no one to ask as Zarqawi kept the funds and accounts in his own hands and shared them with no one else. In any event, this source of funding is lost to the tribes.
4. Saudi Arabia is quietly backing this American initiative in Iraq. Saudi agents maintain informal contact with Iraq’s Sunni tribal leaders for the sake of saving the Sunni Arab interest in Iraq from eclipse by rising Shiite and Iranian influence in the country. Saudi rulers are preparing a gesture of reward for the Iraqi tribal chiefs fighting al Qaeda, if they stand by their commitment, by hosting an assembly in Mecca of Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite tribal leaders as a symbol of national reconciliation.
5. Most important of all, in the two weeks since the tribal chiefs made their new pledge, American military commanders can see its first fruits.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources confirm that al Qaeda’s adherents are in flight from pursuing tribal fighters determined to kill them. They have been seen passing through the three-cornered swathe of land marked by Ramadi and Falluja in the center and Rubatha in the west. The al Qaeda fugitives are heading north towards Tal Afar north of Mosul and racing across the border to Syria.
Into Asad’s welcoming arms
They have found President Bashar Asad willing to rescue al Qaeda in Iraq from complete rout and more than ready to spoil an American achievement. He has substantially depleted Syrian military units and border guards on the Iraqi border and sent them back to their bases in the Syrian interior. When asked about this redeployment, Asad replied sarcastically that the Americans, Europeans and United Nations should decide what they want of Damascus. On the one hand, Washington and Paris demand Syrian forces on the Lebanese border to guard against arms smuggling to Hizballah; on the other, he is expected to seal the border to Iraq. Syria, said Asad, has enough troops to seal one border, not two.
He therefore picked the Lebanese border to comply with UN Security Council resolution 1701.
The Syrian president’s stonewalling tactics have made the United States and its commanders in Iraq anxious on two scores.
One is that Syria will provide the al Qaeda fugitives with a cushy logistical base with facilities for rest, recuperation and medical care like those laid on for Zarqawi. The combatants will then be sent back to Iraq, refreshed and rearmed.
In the view of American security agencies countering al Qaeda in Iraq, whether or not the Syrians provide these amenities depend more on Tehran than on the Asad regime. Financing would come from Iran if the ayatollahs found an anti-American move politic.
An alternative prospect is an Iranian decision to shunt al Qaeda fugitives across into Lebanon instead of back to Iraq. This would be bad news for Washington because it would tie in with the next Syrian-Iranian scheme for Lebanon – stirring up a fresh civil war to oust the pro-American government.
This scheme is examined in our next article.