The answer to the question depends whom you ask – and when.
A resounding no! to the pullout for coalition troops after the June 30 transfer of sovereignty would come from President George W. Bush, vice president Dick Cheney or British prime minister Tony Blair.
But the true answer is more complicated when you read closely between the lines of Bush’s Rose Garden comments during a White House visit by Afghan president Hamid Karzai Tuesday, June 16. He said then: “We want to make sure that (Saddam Hussein) doesn’t come back to power, and so it’s a legitimate question to ask of the interim (Iraqi) government: How are you going to make sure he stays in jail?”
Bush was talking to reporters shortly after Iraq’s new prime minister, Iyad Allawi, announced in an al Jazeera TV interview that the Americans were to hand Saddam over to the interim government within two weeks.
Bush’s remarks signaled that he no longer insists Saddam stand trial – legal proceedings in which the United States has already invested large sums and countless hours of preparation. No trial also means no death penalty. It seems as if Bush has lowered is expectations and will now be satisfied with making sure Saddam spends the rest of his life behind bars, with nary a mention of the conditions of his incarceration.
In separate remarks on the same day, Bush had this to say about firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr: “The interim Iraqi government will deal with al Sadr in the way they see fit. They’re sovereign. When we say transfer full sovereignty, we means transfer full sovereignty.”
He spoke after Iraq’s provisional president Ghazi al-Yawar welcomed the radical Shiite cleric’s decision to go into mainstream politics and run for election.
A new rule of thumb emerges from the two comments coming from the US president on the same day, namely that the final say over how to deal with Sadr and Saddam rests with the sovereign Iraqi government. As long as the new Iraqi government promises to keep the former dictator locked up, the details are immaterial.
This constitutes an about-turn in Bush’s approach. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources believe the US may even become receptive to a previously rejected formula, one that was first proposed privately by the Russians back in February 2003, about three weeks before the US-led invasion of Iraq.
Its terms were first reported exclusively by DEBKAfile’s sources in Moscow and Baghdad on February 25, 2003, two days after old Middle East hand Yevgeny Primakov, former Russian prime minister, foreign minister and KGB director in the Soviet period, visited Saddam’s palace in the Iraqi leader’s hometown of Tikrit. Primakov, one of the few foreign friends trusted by Saddam, advised him to accept a comfortable and safe exile to prevent war, according to the following arrangements:
Acceptance of the plan by himself and Washington with UN endorsement would force the United State to call off its war offensive against Iraq.
All Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction must be immediately dismantled and destroyed. The Iraqi inventory would be checked against Russia’s lists and compared with American data. (Later, DEBKAfile notes incidentally, Russian generals and intelligence chiefs were to insist that Saddam did not possess a single WMD!)
Saddam will remain president for about one year.
The process of disarmament will be coupled with the installation of a transitional government in Baghdad with no affinity to the ruling Baath or Saddam’s ruling circle. It will officiate one year under international oversight, draft a new Iraqi constitution and arrange a general election.
The election over, Saddam will retire quietly and make way for the newly elected regime.
He and his family, together with his top political and military insiders, will move out of Baghdad to one of his palace compounds near Tharthar Lake north of Tikrit under international protection. His movements in and out of this palace will be restricted.
Primakov assured the Iraqi ruler he would not be a prisoner despite those restrictions.
The fortune he had stashed away in foreign banks would be neither impounded nor frozen.
In short, his Russian friend gave Saddam to understand that while fresh political forces, including opponents in exile, would take over the reins of government, he would not completely cut off from the levers of influence. He would moreover retain control of funds enabling him to play a future role in Iraqi politics.
The Primakov Formula could without too much difficulty be adapted to contemporary post-war conditions by means of certain adjustments (appearing in bold letters):
Acceptance of the plan by Saddam, Washington and the Iraqi interim government (deleted to the end).
Saddam will disclose where he and his sons hid Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and their current whereabouts.
Cancelled (such a government now exists).
Elections will be held as planned.
Saddam will be reunited with his wife and family, who are now in Qatar, if they so wish. He will be transferred from his prison cell to the Lake Tharthar palace or any other location agreeable to the Americans, the Iraqi government and the United Nations. A UN flag will fly over the location, which may be placed under the guard of Iraqi and UN forces.
(new) – Saddam and family will be barred from political activity, although he may receive visitors from Iraq or abroad. After a preset time period of several years, conditions permitting, he may leave the protected compound.
(new) – From the jail designated by the Iraqi government, Saddam will issue a statement calling for national unity and the cessation of all insurgent activity against the Baghdad administration and foreign forces.
(new) – A final date will be set for the pullout of US, British and other coalition forces. The UN Security Council will ratify the withdrawal date.
Saddam and several Iraqi guerrilla leaders may well find a proposal on these lines acceptable in the run-up to Iraqi sovereignty. Arab leaders such as Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak liked the plan in the past and may support it again as a means of pacifying post-occupation Iraq.
The new proposal was not resurrected out of nowhere.
As we reported in DEBKA-Net-Weekly 160, on June 4, 2004, president al-Yawar’s power base is rooted in the Shamar tribal federation to which he owes his first allegiance. Invoking tribal and religious ties over political loyalties – a handy recipe for serving more than one side of a given conflict – the Shamar gave sanctuary to Saddam’s family back in April 2003. For years, Russian agents operating in Iraq and Syria were at home in Shamar territory, allowed to use it for surreptitious movement back and forth between the two countries. The tribal leaders knew all about Primakov’s 2003 proposal.
Today, Shamar tribal agents are well-placed to closely follow the slightest movements of Iraqi guerrilla forces and discover exactly where they plan to strike next. Their ability to keep track of the forces fighting the Americans leaves US command and intelligence far behind.
Tuesday and Wednesday, June 15 and 16, Iraqi insurgents pulled off a multiple intelligence and operational feat. They sabotaged two key oil pipelines near Basra and Kirkuk and succeeded in shutting off Iraq’s oil exports through two terminals.
In Kirkuk on Wednesday, they assassinated Ghazi Talabani, the Kurdish chief of security in Iraq's northern oil fields and cousin of Jalal Talabani, veteran leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and a key figure in the new provisional government. To reach their victim, they needed precise intelligence for piercing the extra-tight American and Kurdish shield protecting him. Yet they were able to shoot him dead from ambush as he drove to work.
Talabani’s murder dealt a heavy blow to American and Iraqi efforts to stabilize Iraqi oil production and steady its outflow to export markets. Now at least two weeks have been lost with a projected $2 billion in revenue down the drain and inevitably an adverse effect on world prices.
No one is better placed to secure the flow of oil and cut deals with local Iraqi insurgent forces than the Shamar and the new president, even at the price of partially restoring them to local power. The Americans have already ventured along this path in Fallujah.
The role of faulty intelligence in determining Bush policy in Iraq is ever-present.
The New York Times, in a lengthy article Sunday, June 13, harked back to March 2003 in the early days of the American war offensive in Iraq, noting that the aerial strikes supposed to have knocked out “high value targets”, including Saddam himself, only hit ordinary civilians (as DEBKA-Net-Weekly reported at the time).
The conclusion did not need spelling out. US intelligence was poor then and it is sorely deficient today – although for a while, in late 2003 when Saddam was captured, the US military command and civil administration in Iraq experienced a quantitative and qualitative improvement in information input. But then in March and April 2004, any real confidence in the ability of US intelligence to make serious inroads in Iraq was shattered by the unforeseen upsurge of violent insurrection by the radical Shiite Muqtada Sadr in Baghdad’s Sadr City and Kufa and his aid to the rising insurgency of Sunni pro-Saddam guerrillas in Fallujah and Ramadi. The ferocity of the outbreaks and the emergence of Sunni-Shiite collaboration caught US intelligence unawares.
The new Iraqi president and prime minister are both privy to the Shamar tribal grapevine and hooked onto the clerical rumor mills. Neither leader harbors any illusions that the Americans or the British are about to develop brilliant intelligence capabilities any time soon. Therefore, neither al-Yawar nor Allawi sees anything wrong with bidding for accommodations at the national level that could embrace the deposed president, much in the same way as Sadr and Baath guerrillas have been brought into accords for ending hostilities in Fallujah and Najaf.
This is true as long as the military status quo is maintained. It could change if the US president decided to push on with his plan to launch a US military offensive against insurgent forces in Iraq in the coming September. What happens then would depend on how well American forces come out of that contest.
As we reported in previous DEBKA-Net-Weekly issues, US forces are pressing full steam ahead with preparations for an overall offensive in the fall against Iraqi insurgents. They will be fighting under two new commanders: four-star Army General George Casey is due to replace three-star General Ricardo Sanchez as senior commander – if his appointment is confirmed by the Senate. His second-in-command is General Thomas Metz, head of US military operations in Iraq, who is already on the scene. Both are fully immersed in plans for the coming battles, confident they command all the resources and intelligence they require to carry the day.
Nonetheless, question marks still hover over the campaign:
A large-scale military offensive requires the provisional government’s nod. That too depends on such imponderables as the way the guerrilla-terrorist campaign develops in the intervening months and how the new Iraqi prime minister and president respond to events between now and September.
The Baathist guerrillas and al Qaeda bombers will not let the grass grow under their feet and wait passively for the US hammer to crash down on their heads. In the next three months, they will make a supreme effort to gather intelligence, strike and disable strategic key points, assassinate any and everyone promising the country a peaceable passage to stability and prosperity under the American aegis, and do everything in their power to pre-empt the coming offensive.
When it comes, the insurgents may opt for flight instead of a showdown – in which case they will prepare hiding places well in advance and so leave the American troops coming to get them clutching thin air. This option would rest on their presumption of American intelligence being too poor to track them down – al Qaeda, in particular.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources reveal that up until late May, US intelligence believed it had finally managed to penetrate al Qaeda’s networks, notably the Arabian Peninsula and Iraqi cells. By mid-June, Osama bin Laden’s organization had filled in the breaches.
It will be hard to convince the US military in Iraq that the offensive is directed at clearly-defined goals, in view of the way their weeks of battling insurgents in Fallujah and Najef were cut short. In the midst of fighting in the Sunni Triangle hotbed of Fallujah, the Marines were told to pull out and hand security over to local Iraqi forces under a Saddam-era general. In Najef, they withdrew to the perimeter leaving Sadr’s Medhi Army militia in place.
Bush is expected to continue to pull his punches by preventing warfare inside Iraqi cities. This expectation was reinforced by the president’s comments Wednesday in which he did not disallow a role for Sadr and his men in Iraqi politics.
According to our military sources, US troops inferred from Bush’s remarks that he leaned towards an accommodation for ending the insurgency in preference to a military decision.
There has been little improvement in the performance of the newly constituted Iraqi security forces since early April, when insurrections were met by half the Iraqis in uniform either refusing to fight with the US-led coalition armies, going AWOL or turning their guns on the Americans.
Wednesday, June 17, US forces arrested six members of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps for planting a roadside bomb and a shooting ambush against a convoy of foreign civilians near the western city of Ramadi. The attack cost the lives of four foreign contractors and five Iraqis in the police car escorting them.