US Plants Small Military Foot in Iraq, Sets up Staging Post in Georgia

America’s promised full-scale offensive against Iraq has been launched with small, discreet military steps. On January 4, our intelligence newsletter DEBKA-Net-Weekly (Issue 43) predicted the campaign would begin in February. On Friday, February 15, the first American Special Forces moved into northern Iraq from Turkey, a development first picked up by the Japanese paper Sankei Shimbun on February 20 and confirmed by our sources.
Six days later, on Thursday, February 21, a second US Special Forces contingent landed in Tbilsi, capital of Georgia, the day President George W. Bush arrived in Beijing. This surprise step may partly account for the stiff welcome extended him by Chinese leaders and their refusal to back up his policies on missile proliferation and Iraq.
At the same time, a heavy American military buildup proceeds at the Omani base on Masirah Island, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, and at the big Ali Salem air base in Kuwait, 60 km from the Iraqi frontier. According to debkafile ‘s military sources, US forces are also streaming quietly to Turkey, Jordan and Israel.
Given the advance American wedge inside Iraq, a Pakistan-style staging post and rear base in place in Georgia and the progressive concentration of military might around Iraq’s borders, America’s full-scale military thrust against Saddam Hussein should be ready to go in the second half of March or early April, earlier than foreseen by most pundits. The general shape of its opening gambits is emerging: air-ground assaults coming from three directions – Turkey and Georgia in the north; Jordan, Israel and American bases in Egyptian Sinai – chiefly the big air base at Sharm el Sheikh – in the west and, from the south, bases in Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain, as well as in Qatar and the Yemen-owned island of Socotra.
This array of strength will be supported by US, British, Turkish and Israel naval units in the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, and the Red Sea. At various stages, Turkish, Jordanian, Kuwaiti and Israel ground forces will be integrated in the campaign.
The advance US unit behind Iraq lines since February 15 is not there to recruit Kurdish or other oppositions, but as an undercover force assigned to reach the Iraqi heartland and prepare the way for the main force by marking out – or even sabotaging – strategic targets.
The American landing in Georgia is a striking global maneuver of comprable strategic weight to America’s post-September 11 declaration of war on world terror. It signals a further deepening of Bush’s friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, without whose consent the Georgia base would not have been made available for the Iraqi campaign. It also opens up the possibility of Russian forces being co-opted to the American war effort – just as Russian, Uzbek and Tajik Special Forces secretly joined the opening US military moves in the Afghan War in early October – as debkafile and DEBKA-Net-Weekly were first to report. The Russians are already rendering technical and intelligence assistance, according to debkafile‘s military sources.
American advance contingents in Georgia are engaged in two preparatory missions:
1. To upgrade local air bases and airports and adapt them for the use of American air force fighter units and transport landings, as an alternative to the big US bases in Turkey, especially at Incerlik. The Turkish bases could well be knocked out at the outset of the campaign by Iraqi airborne forces or missiles with chemical, biological or radiological warheads. The Georgian bases would be out of Iraqi air and missile range.
The American unit in Georgia includes officers from Incerlik whose job it is to organize the smooth and rapid transfer of Turkish-based detachments.
2. To help the Russian army flush out Chechen rebels controlling the Pankisi Gorge in the precipitous mountains and ravines of the border area between Georgia and Chechnya. Some 2,000 Chechens and ex-Afghan al Qaeda and Taliban fighters have taken refuge in the Pankisi Gorge and are capable of striking American and Russian forces based in Georgia from the rear in the course of the anti-Iraq offensive.
Iraq, for its part, has also launched preparatory moves for the approaching conflict.
Israeli strategists view the latest Palestinian terror escalation and its focus on Israeli armed forces as an integral element of those preparations. Information reaching American, Israeli and Jordanian intelligence authorities points to a strategic decision by Yasser Arafat to throw the Palestinians behind Saddam Hussein’s war effort, just as he did in the 1991 Gulf War. They believe that the recent Palestinian strikes against Israeli military targets, such as the destruction of the Merkava-3 tank in the Gaza Strip February 14 and the attack on the Al Arik roadblock position near Ramallah five days later, in which six Israeli combat engineering corps troops were killed, were too precise for the intelligence capabilities of the Palestinians. They were very possibly planned by Iraqi military intelligence agents, who are infiltrating Palestinian-held territory in increasing numbers of late.
debkafile‘s military and intelligence sources tie this development closely with the sudden crop of reports of Arafat’s imminent release from Ramallah, where Israel has bottled him up since December 3. He may even be allowed to travel for the first time and reach the Arab summit conference opening in Beirut on March 28. This dispensation is interpreted by our sources as a US-Egyptian-Israeli attempt to purchase Palestinian neutrality in the US-Iraqi war and disengage the Palestinian-Israel conflict from the larger picture.
If the ploy works, the Palestinian terror threat will be lifted from Israeli and Jordanian military targets and both armies will be freer to back up the American war effort. But if Arafat holds to his decision to aid Saddam Hussein, the tide of Palestinian terrorism against the Israeli army will rise and even spill over into Jordan.

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