As DEBKA-Net-Weekly went to press, Iraqi Shiite supreme leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, issued a rare fatwa (religious decree) Thursday night, Sept 15, calling for a sweeping Shiite boycott of Iraqi’s Sunni neighbors Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
He accused both kingdoms of fostering Sunni terrorism against Shiites in Iraq.
His decree marks a drastic heightening of Sunni-Shiite animosity, bringing it a step closer to the sectarian conflict al Qaeda is striving to stir up in Iraq.
The events building up to Sistani’s move are outlined in the articles below.
The Iraqi Shiite resolve to refrain from retaliating for al Qaeda’s brutal terrorist acts against their community has progressively weakened. Two weeks ago, to avoid plunging Iraq into a bloody sectarian conflict, Shiite religious and secular leaders undertook a deliberate policy of self-restraint – even after al Qaeda massacred some 1,000 Shiite pilgrims at the Imam Mousa al Kadhim shrine in Iraq on August 31.
(See DNW 220, September 2, 2005 “Cold-Blooded Attempt to Provoke an Iraqi Civil War”).
But the unrelenting carnage since has spurred small armed groups of the Shiite Badr and Wolves Brigades into action. For the first time, they have been stealing up on al Qaeda safe houses and killing their occupants.
Shiite police-makers’ plans for full-scale revenge were laid aside very temporarily – only until they were in full command of government in Baghdad. They have no doubt that this will be the upshot of the October 15 national referendum on the constitution and the general election two months later. Once in power, they intended wreaking full revenge on al Qaeda on behalf of the Iraqi nation, rather than as a sectarian community.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Tehran report that the Iranian government agreed with this tactic and ordered its intelligence and military agents in Iraq to hold their fire and stay out of the sporadic Shiite strikes against al Qaeda.
But al Qaeda’s leaders had no intention of sitting around and waiting for the Iraqi elections to come and go. In the face of Shiite raids on their havens, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi opened his Southern Front. His gangs began mounting attacks on the Shiites of southern Iraq and the British forces securing the region from Iraq’s second largest city, Basra.
The first sign that al Qaeda had landed in Basra, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terror sources, was the shooting dead of American journalist Steven Vincent August 3. He was staying in the city to write a book.
US intelligence experts on al Qaeda wonder how Zarqawi’s men reached Basra undetected. They suggest instead of taking the risky southern route overland, they may have landed by sea.
After spending a month getting organized in the new terrain, the terrorists lashed out.
September 7, the “daisy chain” bomb trap they planted killed four American security contractors escorting a British diplomatic convoy. Next day, they detonated a car bomb near a hospital, killing 20 Iraqis. September 11, they planted a roadside bomb in the path of a British military convoy, killing one soldier and injuring three.
The explosives used in these attacks proved on examination to be of the type al Qaeda uses in Baghdad. But because its Southern Front is nowhere near the scale of its Baghdad campaign, Shiite, American and British authorities are getting away for the moment with playing it down as sporadic attacks rather than a fresh campaign of terror.
Ibrahim Jaafari’s secret weapon – Shiite Turkomen
Iraqi prime minister Ibrahim Jaafari fell in line only reluctantly with the majority decision of his Shiite colleagues to hold off reprisals against al Qaeda. But he was far from happy and cast about for a way to circumvent it and get back at al Qaeda and its Iraqi chief al-Zarqawi – especially after the Khadhimiya massacre two weeks ago.
He found his opportunity by chance.
Four months ago, Jaafari, as leader of the Shiite Dawa party, went shopping for a new ally – both to bolster his following and to cut the Kurds down to size, especially president Jalal Talabani. Rather than the Shiite mainstream in the south, he sought a Shiite partner in the Kurdish region in the north. It was then that he hit on the Turkomens, half of whose estimated 1,300,000 are Shiites. Their main city is Tal Afar, north of Mosul and close to the Syrian border.
Jaafari discovered that the Turkomen were on close terms with the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, whose patronage they sought after losing Ankara’s intelligence and military protection (a development DNW 212 of July 1 covered: Turkomen Form Pact with Radical Shiite Sadr.)
The prime minister resolved to break up this pact. Most Shiites regard Sadr as a renegade since he began hobnobbing with the al Qaeda chief Zarqawi.
Whereas Sadr was on close terms with the entire Turkomen community, Jaafari reached out to the Shiites. Little did he realize at the time – June and July – that three months later, his new alliance would show him the way to settle scores with Zarqawi and that Tal Afar would become the arena.
Turkomen Shiites were at the sharp end of the Tal Afar offensive
Saturday, September 9, Iraqi prime minister Jaafari gave the order for the large US-Iraqi force to launch a general offensive against the Turkomen town of Tal Afar. He said his government was responding to an appeal from all the religious and ethnic groups for help against terrorist elements who had seized control of the town.
This appeal was generated, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources, by a secret pact Jaafari had concluded with Shiite Turkomen leaders in the town. It was supplemented by a second agreement between Jaafari and the US military commanders in Iraq.
The first pact had four parts:
1. Turkomen armed militia would fight along with the American-Iraqi forces raiding Tel Afar.
2. The Turkomen would make available all their intelligence data on al Qaeda and Zarqawi’s men in the town, their hiding places and arms caches, and hand over maps of their smuggling routes from Syria.
3. Each US or Iraqi unit engaged in Tal Afar would be accompanied by a Shiite Turkomen officer as guide. These guides would lead the assault troops to terrorist hideouts and their arms caches and also identify the captured men.
4. The Turkomen community would benefit from the prime minister’s protection against al Qaeda forces, budget allocations, special consideration for their rights as a minority and a strong lobby in Baghdad.
Jaafari’s deal with the American commanders was simple:
The Tal Afar offensive would be presented to the media as an Iraqi military operation ordered by his government with American support. Jaafari would be presented as its commander-in-chief. To this end, he would be shown publicly inspecting the battle arena. As the first Iraqi prime minister to set foot in a battlefield against al Qaeda, his reputation would be considerably enhanced in the Iraqi Shiite community as the only leader who dared challenge al Qaeda face to face.