The Iraq Neighbors’ Conference taking place in Baghdad Saturday, March 10 brings together more than a hundred diplomats – many face to face with their adversaries: Americans and Iranians, Syrians and Iraqis and Turks with Kurds.
The occasion marks stage one of a highly undiplomatic covert war. The next stage is due to begin at any time, having brought into the fray thus far America, Iran, Turkey, Israel, Syria, Denmark, the Lebanese Hizballah and the Palestinian Hamas and Jihad Islami.
Quite apart from its upbeat symbolism, not much substance is expected to come out of this sub-ministerial gathering.
The US delegation will be led by David Satterfield, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s senior adviser on Iraq and outgoing US ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad. Their opposite number is Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Aragchi.
Syria’s Bashar Assad asked to send his foreign minister Walid Mualem to the meeting Saturday, but Washington, Riyadh and Tehran put their respective feet down.
At best, the event might eventually lead to the issues coming before the foreign ministers of the governments concerned, i.e. Rice and Saudi foreign minister Saud al Faisal opposite Iran’s foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki and national security adviser Ali Larijani.
Before that happens, nothing much will change in Iraq’s security situation. The question is how long will it take for the foreign ministers to get together.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly discloses that the Americans come to the table in Baghdad with three goals scored against Iran in their covert war, leaving their adversary trailing behind:
1. The CIA rendezvous with the former Iranian General Ali Reza Asgari, whose disappearance has fired the world media since it was first exposed by debkafile.
We can reveal here for the first time that the general flew to Copenhagen from Istanbul on Feb. 7 shortly after arriving from Damascus. He landed in Turkey under one identity and left with another.
Rendezvous in Copenhagen
Involved in his safe transition were the CIA, Turkish military intelligence (read separate article in this issue on the row between the Ankara government and top brass), the Israeli Mossad and the Danish Security Intelligence Service (PET).
For a promise of immunity and asylum for life for him and his family, the Iranian general, a former deputy defense minister, agreed to spill everything he knew about Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards Corps, the internal situation in the Islamic leadership, the clandestine Iranian networks in Iraq, the Persian Gulf and the Middle East, as well as Tehran-Damascus ties, Hizballah, the Palestinian Hamas and Jihad Islami and how far they are controlled from Tehran.
Asgari’s initial debriefing lasted a month. The Americans came away armed with enough material – not just for an edge at the Baghdad meeting, but for an awareness of the weak links in Iran’s armor and Tehran’s probable modes of retaliation for Washington’s coup.
2. With Saudi help, the United States has finally managed to play off Iran against Syria, breaking up the Tehran-Damascus alliance and removing Hizballah from Syrian control. (See a separate article in this issue describing how Iran and the US are acting to dislodge Syria from Lebanon.)
3. Wednesday, March 7, the Pentagon announced the deployment of an extra 2,100 military police to Baghdad on top of the 21,000 consigned to the Iraqi capital earlier by President George W. Bush. The US defense department made no public mention of the reinforcements for US squadrons airlifted during the week from the States and Europe to US Air Force bases at Udeid, Qatar, and Naama, Bahrain.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report that Iran responded to these American military movements by three steps.
Tuesday, March 6, Tehran announced a nationwide air defense drill. This provided cover for mobilizing the air defense brigades’ reserve units and their deployment around Tehran and other main towns, as well as national strategic installations, including nuclear and oil facilities. This step placed all of Iran’s air defenses on full war footing.
The Revolutionary Guards additionally encircled all nuclear facilities with the commando units they had formed as protection against raids by American or Israeli special forces.
Finally, Tehran stepped up the volume of arms sent to pro-Iranian forces in Iraq.
Considering these steps, Iran has by and large responded passively thus far to the whipping inflicted by Washington.
However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources report that no one responsible in Washington or Jerusalem expects the Iranians to turn the other cheek for long.
Al Qaeda’s vicious reminder
Just as the Bush administration’s fist is brandished in sync with the diplomatic track it is pursuing with Iran, including the Baghdad meeting, so too the heads of the Islamic Republic are bound to fight back, although not necessarily in the form of direct attacks on American targets. The Iranians may hit Israel instead. They could repeat their 2006 exercise by loosing Hizballah and/or Palestinian terrorist groups for a mega-attack or a minor military operation against Israel, or arrange the abduction of a diplomat or businessman in Europe or the Far East.
Syria, too, loath to be left out of any action, is considering a limited attack on Israel on the Golan to break out of its isolation.
While attention is fixed firmly on the interplay between Washington and Iran and Syria, little heed is paid to al Qaeda. A reminder to the participants of the Iraqi Neighbors’ meeting in Baghdad was delivered in the form of a vicious string of calculated attacks which made Monday, March 5, one of the bloodiest days Iraq has suffered since the Iraqi-US security crackdown began three weeks ago.
A suicide bomber devastated Baghdad’s ancient booksellers’ market, killing at least 30 people and setting shops, stalls and cars ablaze. This book market was one of the oldest in the Muslim world. A unique collection of writings and works dating from the early days of Islamic civilization were wantonly vandalized, a crime comparable to the destruction of ancient manuscripts in the British or Cairo Museums.
The following day, two suicide bombers murdered 115 Shiite pilgrims and maimed nearly 250 in Hilla (on the site of ancient Babylon), south of Baghdad. They were on their way to the shrine city of Karbala. That night, 200 armed al Qaeda gunmen stormed a government jail near the northern city of Mosul and freed up to 150 prisoners, most of them al Qaeda terrorists, but also Saddam Hussein‘s nephew, the son of the recently executed intelligence chief, Barzan al-Tikriti.
The jihadists claim they can electronically disarm US anti-roadside bomb devices
This offensive had two objectives:
One was to prove that al Qaeda is capable of flouting the big US-Iraqi security crackdown at any time and at any place in Iraq, from Mosul in the north to Hilla in the south.
The second was to further aggravate Sunni-Shiite animosities and keep the flames of the sectarian war high in order to goad the extremist Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr and his Mehdi Army commanders into coming out of hiding in Tehran and standing up for the embattled Shiites.
Al Qaeda tacticians reckon that his return will precipitate a head-on clash with US forces and tip the country into an anarchic free-for-all.
But al Qaeda’s crowning achievement was not an attack.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources reveal that in the last two weeks, the jihadis claim to have created an electronic circuit for disrupting the electronic devices fitted on American armored vehicles to zap IED roadside bombs.
The vehicles have two systems, the most sophisticated counter-measures for roadside bombs in the American arsenal which have saved many lives: one locates an IED from afar and sends a beam to detonate it; the second picks up the scent of explosives in time to avoid them and blow them up.
Al Qaeda claims to possess an electronic circuit that can distort the operation of both these systems.
Thursday, March 8, al Qaeda’s Iraq commander “Emir of the Believers”, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (whom the Maliki government claimed to have captured this week) released a statement claiming his organization was now in control of American armed vehicular movements and military convoys in Iraq and would now bend all its military and technological efforts to methods for downing American helicopters.