Waiting for Arafat

Sweeping through the Middle East in early March, US vice president Dick Cheney told his hosts, including the Saudis, that a US military offensive against Iraq was fixed and final and would take place soon. He left the distinct impression that the assault was scheduled for late spring to spare US troops the stifling summer heat of the Iraqi desert, where temperatures can top 50 degrees centigrade (120 degrees F).

When US secretary of state Colin Powell followed in Cheney’s footsteps in mid-April, he passed a similar message in closed-door conferences with regional leaders, assuring them that Washington would move against Iraq very soon.

Things began changing after Powell’s departure when Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield against Palestinian terror strongholds on the West Bank shifted into high gear. US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld posed a rhetorical question to several Arab and Israeli leaders: Since a military campaign was already underway against Yasser Arafat, might it not be better to stamp out Palestinian and Hizbollah terror before taking on Iraq?

It was a rare hint from a top US government official to foreign leaders that an attack on Iraq might not be as imminent as they had been led to think.

After repeated probes by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Washington, and in numerous Middle Eastern capitals, it begins to look as though US President George W. Bush has decided not to go to war against Iraq until the “Arafat problem” is disposed of. He has accepted Powell’s argument that Washington’s interests and standing in the world would suffer unless the Arab world and Europe were properly prepared for the action in advance.

Disseminating this scenario may, however, be no more than a diversionary tactic, as the Boston Globe, breaking away from the US media pack, reported in an April 28 story headlined “Pentagon finalizing Iraq plans”. The Globe quoted Jay Farrar, a former senior Defense Department official, who is now director of special projects at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a centrist Washington think tank. Referring to the impression that the current Bush administration would hold off attacking Iraq for at least several months, Farrar said that this thinking no longer may be true. “I think it’s very much a possibility sooner rather than later,” he said. “There are a number of reasons, some of which are rooted in… hard fact: Saddam Hussein is a bad guy and he and his people are building bad things. A lot of this is rooted as well in wanting to go in and clean up a mess that wasn’t cleaned up 11 years ago in the Gulf War.”

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources cite many Gulf and the Middle East as admitting themselves baffled as to president Bush’s intentions. They reveal that Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, who leaves late on Saturday for his fifth White House visit since taking office, told close confidants that he does not understand why Bush decided to link the US attack on Iraq with Arafat’s fate and that he was extremely concerned.

Meanwhile, DEBKA-Net-Weekly ‘s military sources say US and British special forces continue to operate quietly inside Iraq. Israeli and Jordanian special units are taking part in some of those incursions on an ad hoc basis.

US special forces have been deployed in three areas in Iraq: the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq ranging south from the Syrian-Turkish border to the oil cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, including the western desert near the frontier with Syria; the western region of central Iraq along the border with Jordan and in the central Syrian Desert, across from cities and towns surrounding Baghdad – mainly in areas surrounding Wadi Gowdaf; and the south, mainly in the Shat al-Arab and Urr regions. Although these commandos have been on the ground for a month and a half, details of their activities are still sketchy. But DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report that US commandos have engaged the Iraqi army, attacking tank concentrations, missiles and convoys. Both sides stay mum about the fighting.

Meanwhile, the latest information gleaned by DEBKA-Net-Weekly from US military sources in the Middle East suggests stormy military activity in mid-May.

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