The most important decision yielded by the two-day conference US President George W. Bush held at the White House this week – in response to the pressing need for revised tactics in Iraq – is revealed here by DEBKA-Net-Weekly.
It was to look into the possibility of pulling American troops out of Iraq’s main cities to outside bases. The war against the Sunni Arab insurgents, al Qaeda terrorists, the Shiite militias and the sectarian death squads will be waged from these protected sites.
This decision was anchored in the president’s determination in principle not to remove the US military presence in Iraq “until the job is done.”
The conference was attended by a broad constellation of Bush administration brains. Among them: Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, his deputy, J.D. Crouch, Senior Adviser to the Secretary of State on Iraq David Satterfield, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, US Army Gen. John Abizaid, Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff, US Marine Gen. Peter Pace and the commander of US forces in Iraq Gen. George Casey.
It was agreed that Iraq is in the grip of five primary conflicts:
1. US versus the terrorist and sectarian groups operating in Iraq – i.e. America against all.
2. The Shiite-Sunni sectarian war.
3. The Kurdish campaign versus Shiites and Sunni Arabs = the Kurds versus all.
4. Iran versus US forces, Sunni Arabs and in some sectors, al Qaeda.
5. The war waged by the Americans, the Iranians and some of the Sunni Arabs against al Qaeda – and vice versa.
What about the Green Zone? One of many questions
The US president addressing the press on Oct. 25 did not do justice to the harshness of Iraq’s rampaging reality by such statements as: “I know many Americans are not satisfied with the situation in Iraq. I am not satisfied either.”
Referring to the facts that October has been the deadliest months this year for American forces and the war will soon have lasted longer than US involvement in World War II, Bush said merely: “The events of the past month have been a serious concern to me and a serious concern to the American people.”
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources in Iraq, American losses in the 30 days of the Muslim Ramadan ending Oct. 24 reached about 300, while Iraq dead numbered according to one estimate 4,000.
The program under review for withdrawing US troops from Iraq’s main cities raises a number of questions:
A. Which cities? All, or some? At the White House discussion, the towns mentioned were Baghdad, its southern satellites up to the Shiite region, Ramadi, Falluja and Tikrit north of Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk in North Iraq.
B. Should the pull-back be staged or take place in a single stroke?
C. Baghdad is a special case. A decision is required regarding the evacuation of the bulk of American troops defending the fortified Green Zone which houses the seat of Iraqi government, the presidential and prime minister’s offices, the most important ministries and the legislative assembly. Removing American soldiers would also necessitate the relocation of most US embassy offices and US military command installations.
D. A careful study is indicated of whether after its redeployment outside the cities, the US army will be able to impose security by remote control from outside bases. The study would also judge the possibility of the troops having to conduct brief forays into the evacuated towns for long enough to restore stability, should the situation there deteriorate badly enough to threaten local government or forces with collapse.
Maliki hits back
E. Will their regrouping outside the cities reduce the number of US dead and injured? Most of the participants in the White House conference agreed that the risk to life and limb could drop dramatically, because the troops would be housed in broad, unpopulated areas, protected by fortifications and patrolling drones and spy planes. Intelligence surveillance would warn them of approaching enemies. In such conditions, American troops would enjoy the relief of long periods of rest between operations.
F. Another question is the survivability of the Nouri Maliki government in Baghdad without the prop of US forces close at hand. The general consensus at the Bush administration conference was that, left to his own devices, the Shiite premier, his government, army and security forces would need to act swiftly to capture the evacuated sites before the militias, the insurgents and the terrorists took over.
In other words, the timeline and responsibility for the American troop withdrawal from the cities will have to be imposed on the Maliki government without leaving him any recourse of appeal.
Hence the Iraqi premier’s angry rejection of any American timeline such as US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad proposed in a statement in Baghdad Wednesday, Oct. 26. The ambassador was joined at the press conference by General George Casey, who said: Iraqi forces should take full control in the next 12-18 months.
In a follow-up interview to Reuter on Thursday, Maliki retorted resentfully:
They think building Iraqi forces will need 12 to 18 months for us to be in control of security. We agree our forces need work but think that if, as we are asking, the rebuilding of our forces was in our own hands, then it would take not 12-18 months but six might be enough.
“I'm talking about having a well- trained army,” he went on to say, “swift and light on its feet and at the same time with medium weapons” (which are now in very short supply).
G. Finally, the issue left unanswered at the conference: Will the military withdrawal from the main cities be the precursor of a general exit of the US army from Iraq?
Splitting tribal regions off from government control
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources disclose that the decision to regroup American troops outside Iraq towns ties in closely with another new tactic approved by the White House and the Pentagon: the handover of certain evacuated locations – not to government authority or units, but to trustworthy indigenous local powers.
This tactic was born of the partial success of a ploy dreamed up by Khalilzad and US commanders to harness Sunni Arab tribal chieftains in areas between central and western Iraq to aid the fight to purge their lands of al Qaeda. Some of the chieftains failed to live up to their pledges of aid and in some places al Qaeda proved too stubborn to dislodge, but, overall, the combined operation worked well and in places where the local tribes lent a hand, security was much enhanced compared with regions where Iraqi military and security forces operated unaided, such as in Kirkuk.
At the same time, should the US military pullback from the main towns, including Baghdad, be accompanied by the handover of responsibility to local chieftains in certain parts of the country, the two processes will combine to weaken central government in the capital and even hasten the fall of the Maliki regime and Iraq’s federal government.
The Iraqi premier is certainly aware of the way the wind is blowing in Washington, as this question and answer in the same interview Thursday demonstrates:
Asked if he was concerned that the United States could try to push him aside if there is no progress in the coming months, Maliki replied: “I don't think American policy would commit the mistake of replacing a prime minister or a government in Iraq. That would be burning their slogans. I don't think they think like that as it would mean the failure of the entire political process.”