US Defense Chief Plays His Last Hand

Complaints about hillbilly armor, computer signatures on “personal” letters of condolence to bereaved American families and mounting US casualties in Iraq have made secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld a liability for President George W. Bush. In his second term, he is expected to try and distance himself from the cocky image “Rummy” projected. Bush may still publicly praise Rumsfeld for doing “an excellent job” and the defense secretary maintain the president asked him to stay on – but DEBKA-Net-Weekly has learned the articulate Pentagon chief will announce his resignation shortly after the Jan. 27 presidential inauguration in Washington and the Jan. 30 national election in Iraq.

Bush has yet to choose a replacement and preliminary secret contacts are under way with several potential successors.

A Democrat might be appointed to the post, in the same bipartisan way in which Republican William Cohen served as President Bill Clinton‘s defense secretary.

A changing of the guard at the Pentagon amid the ferocious guerrilla war in Iraq will give the Bush administration a chance to review key policy goals:

1. Does the United States mean to persist in fighting a winning war in Iraq?

2. Do Washington and US military chiefs appreciate that guerrilla and terrorist wars cannot be fought to a victorious finish, that US forces will never fully control Iraq and that American influence over its diverse ethnic and religious communities will always be limited?

3. Will Rumsfeld’s successor prefer to shore up US military gains in Iraq or prepare American forces for a staged pullout?

The next Pentagon chief will need clear policy lines and goals from the president, a four-year plan for Iraq and strategic guidelines for the global war on terror. Bush’s inability to clearly chart the way forward deterred Senator John McCain from putting his name forward, although this Vietnam War hero would have been regarded by the president as an ideal candidate for the job.


Post-election issues in Iraq loom large


The new secretary’s directives from the White House will also depend on his own input and how fast a learner he is. Taking over in mid-February, just two weeks after Iraq’s first post-Saddam election, he will have to pick up fast on the bearing of its success or failure on US policy. For now, the outcome is anyone’s guess. Will the number of districts in which voting takes place exceed the number in which terrorist attacks keep voters away from the polls? How high a casualty toll will the election exercise exact from Americans and allied Iraqi security forces? Can the terrorists and insurgents derail the election?

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources, the information reaching US intelligence is that they can.

Sunni-Baath insurgents and al Qaeda combatants plan to expand their current deadly suicide and roadside bombing offensive and focus on massacring ordinary Iraqis standing in line at polling stations. Other plans entail seizing control of polling stations, some in major cities, and stuffing the ballot boxes with Baath party slips, or hijacking the heavily guarded truck convoys transporting the ballot boxes to tallying centers. Blowing up those centers would sabotage the final count.

However, these hazards are being explained away, according to our Iraqi experts, as “security and technical problems.” Some 30,000 US troops will patrol the streets of Baghdad on election-day and thousands will police Mosul and other voting centers. The policy-makers are meanwhile wrestling with the formidable post-election issues of transition from the interim administration headed by Iyad Allawi to the newly-elected Iraqi government.

It is generally accepted that this government will be all-Shiite and ruled through remote control by the most influential Iraqi Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Beyond that, prospects are hazy. How will the governing Shiites interact with Washington and the US military in Iraq? How will the composition of government in Baghdad affect Iraq’s territorial and national integrity? Setting a Shiite administration to rule Iraq backed by US guns will not only shake the bedrock foundations of minority Sunni-ruled Iraq, but also set earth tremors rolling across the Middle East and its Sunni-dominated regimes, from Riyadh to Ankara.

(The Turkish interest is covered in separate article in this issue.)


Terrorists abetted by insiders


In the short term too, the US military in Iraq is beset with problems.

A. The two major military campaigns they waged in the second half of 2004 – in Najaf and Karbala in August and in Fallujah in November – were only partly successful. American forces did smash Moqtada Sadr‘s radical Shiite Mehdi Army militia in Najaf and neutralize his political clout. And in Fallujah, they rooted out the main bases of the Iraqi Baath party, and of imported Arab fighting units, al Qaeda, Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi’s group and Hizballah.

However, even after those feats were chalked up, the operational capabilities of Sunni guerrillas and al Qaeda remain largely unimpaired. Most of their best-trained combatants slipped out of Fallujah ahead of the American raid. They later sneaked back into Fallujah and set themselves up in other Sunni Triangle cities, Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul. In the last day or two they have relocated again, as will be detailed in a separate article below.

B. The American military suffered a nasty blow on December 21 when a suicide bomber blew up the mess tent of the US forward base in Mosul killing 22 people, 18 of them Americans. It also marked a turning point in the US war on terror.

Muslim websites triumphantly named the suicider who wore Iraqi army uniform as Ahmed Said Ahmed Ghamdi, a 20-year-old Saudi (See DNW 187, December 24, 2004, “Al Qaeda Switches to Post-Fallujah Mode).

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror experts recall that Ghamdi tribesmen took part in some of al Qaeda’s biggest attacks, including the 9/11 hijack-bombings in the United States. This information places the Mosul suicide bombing outside the local Iraqi sphere and in the universal context of America’s war on world terrorism. Saudi and US intelligence services had been watching the Ghamdi tribe very closely. Now there is an intense probe to find out how a tribe member managed to sneak into Iraq from Saudi Arabia and then penetrate a US military installation.

The inescapable assumption is that he had inside help. He could not have carried out the attack when and where he did without intelligence and willing hands – either to enlist him to the Iraqi army or, if he was only disguised, to get him a uniform and a pass gaining admission to the American facility.

All this strongly indicates betrayal and a successful Al Qaeda penetration of US and Iraqi intelligence and security services as well as Saudi agencies.

C. Syria continues to sponsor the al Qaeda and Iraqi Baath insurgent bases nourishing and fueling the insurgency in Iraq (See separate item on Armitage visit to Damascus). US military planners are convinced the Iraq War cannot be won as long as the logistical and financial links between the anti-US forces fighting in Iraq and their Syrian bases are not severed.

Those issues remain unsolved as Rumsfeld heads out the door. His successor’s chances of laying them to rest are doubtful.

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