Twelve hours after US President George W. Bush laid out his new plan for Iraq on Wednesday, Jan. 10, secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, secretary of defense Robert Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace stood in phalanx before the Washington press corps with a clarification.
In case they missed the point of the Bush speech, the trio made it clear that the United States would go after any country “destabilizing” Iraq or interfering with American-Iraqi operations. They underlined the president’s threat to “interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria for attacks on American troops”, and “seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.”
Gates put in: “US credibility is on the line in Iraq.”
In the twelve-hour gap between the two Washington appearances, US troops raided the Iranian consulate in the Kurdish capital of Irbil in northern Iraq. Dropped by five helicopters on the roof, they met up with an encircling US armored force. After searching the building, they detained five Iranian diplomats and took away papers and computers.
Tehran complained about this breach of international law but by and large played the incident down.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources explain why. For Tehran, Iraq is an active field of expansion, just like Lebanon; it is willing to put up with American attacks on Iranian targets in Iraq as the price of its venture, but only so long as Iran’s deep military and intelligence deployment in the country remains untouched.
Ever since 2003, DEBKA-Net-Weekly has tracked tier by tier the build-up of Tehran’s military-intelligence infrastructure which is buried in every part of Iraq. The first bricks were laid from May 2003, by the operations ace shared by Iran, Hizballah and al Qaeda, the elusive Imad Mughniyeh. The small clandestine mechanism he founded in southern and central Iraq has swollen in the interim to a large organization of 20,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers and NCOs. Their tasks are well-defined; each is responsible for maintaining ties with an element of Iraqi society, whether Shiite, Sunni Arab, Kurdish Turkemani or any other.
Will Bush drain the swamps in Iran and Syria?
In the view of military and intelligence experts, rooting out this insidious organization will be as tough as breaking the back of the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr‘s Mehdi Army militia, which commands 2.5 million adherents in Baghdad alone.
Yet Thursday night, Jan. 11, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s exclusive military sources reveal that five brigades – one American, three Kurdish and one Shiite, attached to the operation with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s blessing – were poised for a major offensive in Sadr City.
This raises the question of priorities.
It may be said that a US-Iraqi military defeat of the Medhi army is highly important and an urgent step towards stemming Iran’s vicious sectarian violence, but it will not scupper the clandestine Iranian setup in Iraq. On the other hand, eradicating the Iranian structure would cripple the Sadrist militia almost fatally.
Therefore, the challenge confronting the Bush administration and its heads is not so much whether the commander-in-chief is willing to order an assault on Iranian and Syrian targets inside Iraq, but whether he will order American troops to cross the borders and go into Iran and Syria and wipe out the Sunni, Shiite and al Qaeda combat command centers harbored there for four years. It is this swamp that feeds the flow of fighters and material support for disrupting US efforts in Iraq.
And if need be, will the president order assaults on the same centers in the northern Lebanon area of Tripoli, the northern Beqaa Valley and Baalbek where Hizballah fighters under Syrian auspices are enlisted and trained to fight Americans in Iraq?
In his speech, Bush threw out some hints which suggested positive answers to these questions.
“Succeeding in Iraq,” he said, “requires defending its territorial integrity – and stabilizing the region in the face of the extremist challenge. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. We will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.
Middle East capitals understood from the US president’s pledge to deploy Patriot air defense systems “to reassure our friends and allies” that his priorities had changed; the Iranian nuclear threat had moved down from the Number One position behind the mission of disentangling Iranian and Syrian hands from Iraq.
They are taking it for granted that neither Tehran nor Damascus will let go of Iraq without a fight, any more than they will give up in Lebanon or the Palestinian Authority. Therefore, a major US confrontation with Iran and Syria is in the cards within days or weeks, bringing all of America’s “friends and allies” under the beady eyes of Iranian or Syrian missile crews.