The clearest message US defense security Robert Gates brought to his meetings in Middle East capitals last week was the plan to start scaling down the American military presence in Iraq from the summer months of July-August, 2007.
A fairly substantial number of troops will be pulled out then, whether or not the security offensive launched in Baghdad in February is a success. A time frame has therefore been fixed for Stage One of the pullout.
In the defense secretary’s view, the special Baghdad security offensive kicked off with a success right at the start in February: It saved Iraq at the eleventh hour from plunging into the abyss, i.e. a total American military collapse. He also sees some positive signs below the surface that may well evolve into future achievements.
Nevertheless, some of Gates’ hosts in his swing round Amman, Cairo, Jerusalem and Baghdad, heard him remark that the security crackdown faces increasing difficulties as it enters its third month. Counteracting US advances in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, al Qaeda has greatly upgraded its operational capabilities, while the US army has not developed a magic bullet for detecting and detonating the jihadists’ most deadly weapon, the suicide truck bombs, before they go off.
Al Qaeda offsets US advances with mass carnage
The American troop death count had reached 25 by April 25, while the British lost 14 men – the highest number in a single month since the 2003 invasion – and the daily score for Iraqis stood at an average of 100 a day.
Gates has ordered every US military and research facility to make a special effort to crack this menace, but there is little hope of a quick remedy. Even if the truck bomb offensive is stopped, al Qaeda will most certainly come up with another gambit for causing mass carnage with suicide killers. It is not a matter of technology, says one US military source in Iraq; the trouble is the constant enhancement of al Qaeda fighters’ combat capabilities and its bottomless supply of willing suicide volunteers.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources in Iraq viewed a new video-clip released by al Qaeda on Monday April 23. It is a revealing illustration of the difficulty encountered by a Western army contending with the extremist group’s tactics.
A US Bradley tank is shown by the video standing in an open space in a residential area of an undetermined town. Its flaps are shut down as the tank’s guns blast al Qaeda positions. Poised on the roofs are American marines and snipers. Heavy al Qaeda fire forces them to take cover behind high parapets and walls. They cannot see what is happening on the ground.
In the next scene, an al Qaeda fighter crawls towards the tank and plants a packet of explosives underneath. Confident he is out of sight of the tank crew and the Americans on the roofs, he repeats this exercise unobserved twice more, before returning to the al Qaeda position. The three explosive packets are then detonated from afar. The American tank is destroyed with the crew sealed inside.
US will retain bases in Kurdistan, build Iraq enclaves for air units
According to our Washington sources, the July-August date for a partial pull-back has been determined without reference to the controversy between President George W. Bush and leading Democratic lawmakers, who incorporated the October 1, 2007 withdrawal date into the funding bill for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Both sides of the domestic US dispute recognize that, in any circumstances, elements of the US army will stay in Iraq in areas conceived by Gates as large, well-protected enclaves. These sites will be extra-territorial, under US control and closed to outsiders, even friends and collaborators.
Asked for details, the US official sketched the following picture.
As a general rule, he said, most American armored infantry, tank units and Marines will be withdrawn from Iraq, whereas most of the Air Force contingents will stay on in US air installations in central and southern Iraq and may even be augmented. Those installations may be expanded into protective enclaves. Special operations forces will be trained to secure the US enclaves and the air bases in Iraq.
Big new American bases will also be located in Kurdistan, northern Iraq, to house armored infantry, tanks, artillery, and missile units.
In his talks in Baghdad on April 20, Gates let it be understood that the American units stationed in Kurdistan would be sufficiently strong and available for rushing to the defense of the American enclaves in the center and south, should this be necessary. They would also be on hand to defend the autonomous region against any outside attack, whether by Iran, Turkey or Syria.
The defense secretary was clearly signaling Damascus and Tehran, according to DEBKA-net-Weekly‘s sources, that even after a partial US troop redeployment outside Iraq, they would not live to see their dream of an American army in full flight from Iraq and their borders. Just the reverse; large-scale US forces would still man Kurdistan’s frontiers with Iran and Syria, strongly backed by the substantial air strength maintained for the long term in Iraqi enclaves.
For Gates, a sustained US military presence in Kurdistan is imperative for the protection of American vital Middle East and Gulf interests. For its sake, he is even willing to countenance a rupture in US relations with Turkey – to the point of a forced evacuation of US air bases in Incirlik and Dyabakir. America could absorb the loss, the defense secretary believes, by gaining air facilities in Iraq and Kurdistan instead.