US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew straight from Jerusalem to Baghdad via Jordan Thursday, Oct. 5. The option of flying directly between these two points might have been seen as a remarkable feat for US foreign policy, were it not for the ill tidings that occasioned her unannounced night journey to the Iraqi capital.
On the plus side, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Baghdad sources report a significant drop in al Qaeda’s terror operations and the wholesale escape of its men to Syria (although the US military refused to confirm an Iraq government report that the US military had that morning killed the new al Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al Masri, successor to Abu Musab al Zarqawi, and three aides).
The jihadist terrorists have been put to flight by a group of Sunni tribes in the western province of Anbar, whose chiefs decided two weeks ago to battle al Qaeda and chase it out of Iraq. Furthermore, the Muslim Army, one of the leading Sunni insurgent groups, announced Thursday it was willing to enter into negotiations with the Americans for an end to belligerence. Capping this was another piece of news that the pro-Iranian Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr had lost control of the Mehdi Army, the largest militia in Iraq, whose men no longer obeyed him.
But the negative news was grim and far outweighed the positive.
According to US intelligence information, the Sunni-Shiite sectarian war is putting 9,000 Iraqi families out of their homes day by day. They have nowhere to go. The number of displaced Iraqis who have become refugees has swelled to four million! The scale of Iraq’s human calamity is already twice that of Darfur, Sudan.
The Iraq Reconciliation Convention in Mecca is postponed
October 2, when Rice landed in Jeddah, the first stop in her Middle East tour, Iraq’s disastrous civil war and the Iranian nuclear threat were at the center of her talks with Saudi king Abdullah. They discussed an optimistic plan for a grand Iraqi reconciliation convention to take place in Mecca Saturday, Oct. 7, and bring together the country’s leading tribal chiefs – the rival Sunnis and Shiites.
Abdullah reported that the heads of Sunni tribes and insurgent groups would be there, but he was less sure of the Shiites. He had invited Iraq’s senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani as a royal guest. If he came and called on the Shiites to lay down arms, the Saudi king believed most of the Iraqi community would obey and the rest of the Shiites in the Middle East would fall in behind their Iraqi coreligionists.
King Abdullah appeared to pin high hopes on his Mecca gathering having a pacific effect not only on Iraq but also easing some of the hard questions vexing his American visitor: How to arrest the Shiite aggressive momentum in the Middle East? How to handle Iran’s drive for a nuclear weapon? How to cut the Syrian ruler Bashar Asad out of his alliance with Tehran? And how to contain Hizballah and Hamas – both of which are under radical Iranian patronage?
(See also in HOT POINTS below: Hamas applies its Rapid Intervention Force to smash Fatah’s last Gaza power base.)
The trouble with Sistani, according to Abdullah, is that while he received the Saudi messengers carrying the invitation to the Mecca gathering, he had not replied. Members of his court cannot say whether he means to attend the convention or not.
This was the situation up until Thursday afternoon, Oct 5, when the US Secretary received word that the Mecca event had been postponed by a few days. She was given to understand that there was no new date for the event, which left it very much up in the air.
All in all, Rice came away from Baghdad with an Iraq picture that showed some hope for improvement, but also counter-indications of a tragic deterioration which will worsen quickly unless it is addressed without delay.
Preferring to be safe rather than sorry, Saudi Arabia has put in train the construction of an electronic barrier along its 550-mile desert frontier with Iraq. The fence will have ultraviolet, night vision cameras, buried sensor cables and thousands of miles of barbed wire.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Middle East sources report that Secretary Rice confronted a shaky reality wherever she touched down in the Middle East.
In her talks with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Rice was told about a major international information campaign launched by a Western public relations firm to present Iran as the greatest danger extant to the Arab and Sunni Muslim world. The campaign was designed to conceal Egyptian fingerprints.
Hardline Meshaal reported seriously ill
On the other hand, the US Secretary was handed intelligence material demonstrating that Egypt had lost its last shred of influence with the Palestinian Hamas and any say it once had in the Gaza Strip.
Mubarak tried explaining there was hope of unseating Hamas in Palestinian government. It rested on the “creeping coup” the Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah movement had stirred up in the Palestinian street by means of anti-Hamas demonstrations and strikes.
This week, the demonstrations degenerated into armed, bloody clashes in Gaza and the West Bank. Still, the Egyptian president spoke optimistically about Abbas’ prospects of establishing a unity government with Hamas.
The only ray of hope on the Palestinian scene for Condoleezza Rice came from the news that the hardline Hamas leader in Damascus, Khaled Meshaal, was seriously ill and had not been seen for two weeks.
The disappearance of this Iranian-Syrian-backed Hamas leader from the Palestinian stage, if he is indeed as ill as reported, might well retrieve Hamas from Iranian-Syrian clutches, because Meshaal’s second in command, Musa Abu Marzuk, leans more toward the Egyptian-Saudi line. But nothing is yet clear on this issue any more than the others.
In Jerusalem, Secretary Rice found Israel’s political and military leaders knocked sideways and immobilized by their refusal to face up to bitter popular resentment for their failures in the Lebanon War.
She found nothing there to alleviate the next Lebanese crisis looming for the Bush administration: the threatened overthrow of the pro-American prime minister Fouad Siniora in Beirut. (See separate article)
At the Arab round table convened for her in Cairo Tuesday, Oct. 3, Rice found the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, the Arab emirates, Egypt, Jordan and part of the Iraqi ruling establishment (as well as Israel and Abbas in later encounters) more than ready to join a pro-American, anti-Iran bloc. But this bloc exists on paper, while Iran, Syria, Hizballah, the radical Palestinian groups and al Qaeda’s Middle East cells, are on the march to defeat any tangible steps the pro-American grouping may take.