According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and intelligence sources, the American troop pullback from northern Iraq began quietly straight after a giant Chinook transport helicopter was downed on November 2, killing 16 American soldiers. By then it was apparent that an Al Qaeda squad trained in the operation of shoulder-launched SA-7 ground-to-air missiles was aiming at US helicopters from the Tikrit region north of Baghdad.
It was also apparent to US intelligence that the missile squad was being fed confidential data by external sources which had somehow managed to penetrate US headquarters or tap into signals detailing the itineraries of senior American officers across Iraq by helicopter.
The Chinook was not the terrorists’ first target. On October 25, they were less successful. They shot down a Black Hawk near Tikrit, mistakenly believing that visiting US deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz was on board.
It was a close call: the official took off only three hours earlier.
Four days after the Chinook was destroyed, another pair of Black Hawk choppers came under missile attack. One was carrying Two-star Maj. Gen. Thomas Romig, the army’s judge advocate general, and his staff. The other one was shot down and six of its passengers killed, including two senior US officers.
The next night, the United States launched a massive armored raid on Tikrit, supported by a heavy aerial bombardment. The assault, which DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources report flattened most of the southern half of the city, signaled a major turning-point in the conflict with Iraqi guerrillas. The hare had turned on the hounds. Operation Iron Hammer had been launched, first in the Sunni Triangle, then in Baghdad. US forces would now respond with an iron fist to any guerrilla attack – first in civilian areas where intelligence showed attacks originated or where the assailants were backed by logistical support.
The intelligence information presented to this week’s White House emergency session on Iraq attested to the attacks on US troops being mounted by an alliance of Saddam loyalists and diehard Baathists, Syrian and Arab fighters and Al Qaeda gunmen who by now number hundreds of combatants from Chechnya, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Sudan, Egypt Kuwait, Jordan and the Palestinian territories.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources have learned that during a raid in Tikrit, US forces uncovered a list of 120 Jordanians, some of whom had arrived and others were on their way to the Sunni Triangle to fight the Americans. Washington handed over the roster to Jordan’s King Abdullah in Amman, who was deeply shocked. The Jordanians, whose military intelligence is usually excellent when it comes to Muslim subversive activities, had not caught on to the Al Qaeda recruiting operation in the Hashemite kingdom, which was conducted through a small and relatively obscure organization called the Muslim Labor party – a radical branch of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood.
Until they saw the list, the Jordanians had no suspicion of the extent of al Qaeda’s penetration of the country. Once it was appreciated, Jordan scrambled to declare a state of military emergency to chase down the extremists who had not yet departed for Iraq.
The discovery in Jordan prompted a disturbing question in Washington: Might not Al Qaeda have mounted similar recruitment drives in other Middle Eastern and African countries – operations US intelligence did not spot?
The information corresponded with news from Riyadh that Al Qaeda operatives from Lebanon were responsible for the explosion that killed at least 18, five of them children, in the Muhaya residential compound over the weekend.
In another attack, pilgrims from Nigeria were tasked by al Qaeda with the mission of blowing themselves up in a crowd of some one million people in Mecca for the Muslim pilgrimage of Omra during Ramadan’s little Hajj.
US intelligence counter-terrorism authorities have come to the conclusion that Al Qaeda is running a two-tier recruitment drive in the Muslim world. One group is posted to Iraq, while the other is scattered around the Middle East – primarily Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, Egypt, Sudan and Israel, instructed to carry out terrorist strikes according to a set timetable. Intelligence officials predict an upsurge of terrorist activity over the next few days in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, accompanied by attacks elsewhere in the Middle East. The outbreak is expected to peak during President George W. Bush’s state visit to London from Tuesday, November 18 to Friday, November 21.
Al Qaeda will strive to pull off terrorist operations in Europe too, notably in London.
Israel is also bracing for intensified terrorist attacks. Its military forces and police are on the alert for what one Israeli official called “a mega-terrorist attack using non-conventional weapons”.
While specific intelligence warnings make no mention of targets inside the United States, America figures strongly in Al Qaeda’s electronic messages and chat rooms.
The Americans began evacuating the Shiite provinces of southern Iraq, save for large bases, in September in the expectation of relative calm. But the savage suicide attack on Italian military police headquarters in Nassiriya Wednesday, November 12, in which 18 Italians and 13 Iraqis were killed and some 80 wounded, proved the Americans wrong again: Saddam’s fedayeen, Arab fighters and Al Qaeda disrupted Washington’s plans again.
The deposed Iraqi president’s military planners are working according to a system of “fanning out” their forces. While the United States is concentrating its military might in the Baghdad area and the Sunni Triangle, the Iraqis and their allies are widening their attacks to the areas evacuated by the Americans in a bid to persuade non-US forces to quit and go home. In short, Saddam’s forces and Al Qaeda mean to turn the tables on Washington and clamp a chokehold on US forces in central Iraq.