Iraqis must have been relieved by the relatively terror-free environment when they went to the polls on October 15 to vote on a new constitution. They would have been a lot more troubled had they known the reason for the lull.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly reveals that al Qaeda’s man in Iraq, the dreaded Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, was busy establishing his headquarters in a new venue, Baghdad, after two years in the western Iraqi province of Anbar.
According to the intelligence data reaching the American command, the Jordanian terrorist chief has reoriented his operations. He now proposes to expose the Iraqi capital to the full range of his campaign of death. The same data describes Zarqawi’s entry to Baghdad in mid-October in a convoy of six military vehicles belonging to the Iraq army. They were stolen from US-Iraqi bases in the north. All the travelers, including the boss, were clad in the new uniforms of high Iraqi army officers. They drove past the roadblocks guarding the town’s entrances without arousing suspicion. Indeed some of the Iraqi security officers manning them saluted the fake officers.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources add: the convoy rolled in to the northeastern, Sunni district known as the Seven Wells, to be greeted by the local commander Emir Abu Yashak and his men. Yashak was given the job of setting up a secret command center and several safe houses for the new arrivals to work out of, as well as escape routes and facilities should the Americans uncover the new hideouts.
It is the first time that US forces and intelligence know for sure where Zarqawi is located. They know he is now in Baghdad.
Journalists’ hotels – Target No. 1
A week later, the al Qaeda chief, fully aware that the Americans had pinned him down geographically, went into action. Monday, October 24, three truck bombs driven by suicide bombers exploded at two hotels housing foreign journalists and contractors in central Baghdad. The suicide driver of one, a giant concrete mixer packed with explosives, was instructed to crash through an outside wall and blow up the entire Palestine hotel. At least one ton of explosive material must have detonated in that concrete mixer. It was the biggest blast to rock Baghdad since the city fell in 2003.
Rockets were fired at the same time. The damage was a lot less than planned because the trucks detonated before they reached the hotels and their inmates were unscathed. However, at least 20 Iraqi security personnel and passers-by were killed and scores more injured.
The claim of responsibility the next day by al Qaeda’s Iraqi branch surprised no one.
The hotels atrocity was a pointer to Zarqawi’s next plan of action, as summarized by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s al Qaeda experts:
1. Multi-weapon, multi-casualty, coordinated attacks on Americans and other foreigners working in Baghdad would be hideous enough to shut down and put to flight diplomatic missions and foreign companies, international aid organizations, journalists and the foreign technical teams employed in constructing and operating Iraq’s new infrastructure. Zarqawi seeks to repeat the effect of the August 19, 2003 explosion at UN Baghdad headquarters, in which Special UN envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello was murdered. Then, many of the foreign and international personnel trooped out of the Iraqi capital and set up shop in neighboring Arab capitals.
2. Along with large-scale coordinated attacks, al Qaeda will step up the hostage-taking and executions of foreigners.
3. The offensive will aim at crippling Iraq’s government, security and parliamentary administration by pinpoint assassinations of cabinet ministers, lawmakers, civil servants, members of the judiciary, army officers and rank-and-file police and soldiers – plus anyone seen by Zarqawi as a collaborator with the Americans.
4. American locations will be targeted – from US headquarters in the fortified Green Zone seat of Iraqi government, to American army command centers and bases and mobile patrols. The attacks will come from within the city, not its outer fringes.
Overriding goal to derail the general election
But Zarqawi’s overriding goal is strategic, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources. It is to cast the Iraq capital into such a state of turmoil and dislocation as to make it impossible to hold parliamentary elections as scheduled on December 15. This would bring to a halt the entire democratic cycle on which Iraq has been launched on the eve of its culmination.
To attain this effect in six short weeks, the Jordanian terrorists will aim to reduce Baghdad to the state of the Ramadi trouble center or pre-2004 Falluja, before the Americans cleansed the town of insurgents and terrorists at the price of ravaging parts of the town.
So important is this objective for the al Qaeda commander that he is prepared to tie himself down to Baghdad and so restrict his freedom of movement, which was unfettered in the wide open spaces of Anbar province. By placing himself in the center of the action, he has also made himself more vulnerable to being captured or killed.
But the terrorist chief may not have had too many options, given three new circumstances.
One, the mounting international pressure on Bashar Assad’s regime may remove Syria as his and al Qaeda’s rear base and escape hatch under a revamped regime or even a new ruler. In Anbar near the Syrian border, he would have laid himself open to a Syrian-American collaborative campaign turned around against him.
Two, new American military tactics took heavy toll of his forces and forced them into retreat. They had no answer for the updated American military tactic of rolling large forces with massive firepower from one location to the next, after thoroughly purging each one. This tactic is workable in the desert reaches and outlying villages of Anbar, but not in a city with millions of inhabitants like Baghdad. This American tactic may have put Zarqawi and his terrorist legions to flight; on the other hand, it is not applicable once he is embedded in Baghdad.
Three, this successful US tactic not only uprooted terrorist bases but inflicted heavy losses running to hundreds of fighting men. In Baghdad, Zarqawi believes he commands a fresh pool of fighting men to refill his depleted ranks, namely, the 90,000 Palestinians of Baghdad who have been dispossessed by the Shiite government of Ibrahim Jaafari. In great peril, the terrorist leader, himself of Palestinian extraction, believes they are perfect material for recruitment.