Friday, May 14, 2004

The End of the Beginning

The imposition of US sanctions on Syria is both an acknowledgement of its role in attacking US forces in Iraq and an admission that the US is not willing to confront Damascus militarily -- yet. The Executive Order, whose full text has not been prominently carried by many newspapers, is extraordinarily accusatory.

I, GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States of America, hereby determine that the actions of the Government of Syria in supporting terrorism, continuing its occupation of Lebanon, pursuing weapons of mass destruction and missile programs, and undermining United States and international efforts with respect to the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States and hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat.

The effects of the sanctions, as observers have pointed out, are mostly symbolic and are of a piece with other holding actions on the Sunni front. In the Sunni triangle, the hesitance of traditional leaders to completely throw in their lot with America seems obvious. Mohammed Latif, a former intelligence officer who now heads the Falluja Brigade, appears to be resisting US demands to disarm the insurgents still holed up in town perhaps sensing that he can safely straddle the fence until the US deals with Sadr and Iranian threat. 

But U.S. commanders are losing patience and have said they will renew their offensive if their conditions are not met. Under the truce, some 2,000 Marines backed by tanks and armored vehicles pulled to Falluja's outskirts to allow Iraqi forces to hunt down weapons and crush the estimated 100 foreign fighters believed to be holed up inside the Sunni stronghold. Many residents in Falluja, a heavily tribal and clannish society still largely loyal to toppled leader Saddam Hussein, consider the partial withdrawal of the world's only superpower as a victory.

In contrast,  the US appears to have forged at least a tactical alliance with Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to reduce Moqtada al-Sadr. Recently, one of Sistani's virtually accused Sadr of being a tool of the predominantly Sunni Al-Qaeda. According to AFP press:

Sistani follower and influential moderate cleric Sadreddin al-Kubbanji convened a meeting of Najaf's tribal elders and repeated his earlier calls for the militia of firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr to leave the city. Speaking to an emotional crowd of Sistani supporters, Kubbanji called for a demonstration on Friday, the Muslim holy day, to protest "chaos, lies and occupation" and warned of a "treacherous plot being hatched in the name of fighting the US-led occupation."

In a veiled criticism of Sadr's Mehdi Army militia, which has taken over the area around the city's holiest shrine, Kubbanji accused "outside elements" of stoking the insurgency in order to drag the Americans into the heart of the sensitive Shiite city. ... Kubbanji said loyalists of jailed former president Saddam Hussein (news - web sites) and Wahabis, radical Sunni Muslims such as followers of Al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden (news - web sites), were behind the conspiracy.

Sisatani has stood idly by as US troops have rounded up Sadr's forces in the environs of the Najaf. The US forces, taking care to avoid the holy places proper, have recently chased the Madhi Army through the necropolis surrounding the town.

A series of loud explosions rocked the southern edge of the Iraqi Shiite holy city of Najaf from about 11:00 am (0700 GMT) on Friday, hours after fighting broke out between US troops and militiamen in the city's vast cemetery. ... The newly appointed governor Adnan al-Zorfi told AFP late Thursday that a "US entry into the centre of Najaf may be imminent," saying that a lot of those around Sadr were "simple men who did not fathom the military might of the United States." "Nobody can set conditions on the Americans," he said, urging Sadr to disband his militia "immediately" and promising that the matter of legal proceedings against him in connection with the murder of a rival cleric last year "could be resolved in Baghdad."

Whether the alliance with Sistani survives Sadr's downfall remains to be seen. But the developments on the two fronts are related. The man coordinating the twin threats by Teheran and Damascus may be Abu Musab Zarqawi. An article by the New York Post suggests he is acting the role of their field coordinator. Zarqawi was reputed to be hiding in Falluja at around the time of the attack on the four Blackwater contractors, and the Shi'ite Kubbanji's accusation that Sadr was treated with Al Qaeda may be more than rhetorical.

May 13, 2004 -- WASHINGTON - Jordanian terror master Abu Musab Zarqawi has eluded a massive U.S. military campaign to bring him to justice with help of extensive network of Middle East connections, including rogue elements of the Syrian and Iranian governments, The Post has learned. U.S. military and intelligence officials said last night that Zarqawi, the man who decapitated American contractor Nick Berg and had the horrifying act videotaped earlier this week, has managed to dodge several secret operations by the CIA and U.S. Special Forces over the past year.

Intelligence reports indicate that Zarqawi has also spent time in Iran and Syria since the fall of Saddam as part of a secret arrangement with rogue elements of security services in both of those countries. "Iran and Syria are giving him cover," said a U.S. official with access to sensitive intelligence reports on the situation. "He is taking advantage of the infrastructure that is allowing the movement of money, arms and fighters into Iraq from those countries."

Some of the critical decisions in this two front war and their relation to the technical handover of sovereignty to the Iraqis in June may be part of the reason for the recent Rumsfeld visit (my speculation) to Iraq. Rumsfeld arrived in Baghdad on May 13 with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Richard Myers and met with Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez and Ambassador Paul Bremer. The full purpose of their visit was kept under wraps. "For security reasons, officials are releasing no further details of the visit." Tea leaf readers will have noted two things about the Rumsfeld visit. He did not meet with CENTCOM CINC General Abizaid and both Rumsfeld and Myers traveled together on an E-4B flying command post.

Rumsfeld and Myers departed for the highly secret mission to Iraq aboard a U.S. Strategic Command E-4B National Airborne Operations Center immediately following their joint testimony to a Senate committee on Capitol Hill May 12.

This was the first time Rumsfeld and Myers had flown together, officials said. The two generally fly aboard separate planes due to security concerns. This was also the first time Rumsfeld has flown aboard the National Airborne Command Center, a modified Boeing 747 jet designed to serve as a survivable mobile command center in a national emergency.

(Speculation alert) It may be that Rumsfeld and Myers were considering an important decision specifically relating to Iraq, one already put forward by Abizaid but requiring an independent assessment, one that required them to stay in touch with the President jointly through the E-4B. The political storm over prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib and, to a lesser extent the decapitation of Nick Berg, has effaced the really important story in the Iraqi campaign: the US has just beaten back a major counteroffensive by Syria and Iran. Regionally, anticoalition forces mounted major attacks on the Jordanian secret service (using gas) and against targets in Saudi Arabia (a car bomb attack against the Saudi security apparatus). Within Iraq, simultaneous attacks were launched in April from both the Sunni and Shi'ite lines of departure. While both inflicted some damage, neither stroke has come close to seriously hurting the US position. It would be natural and not in the least surprising, if Rumsfeld and Myers were not considering what the American riposte should be.

Whether the Syrian sanctions and operations against Fallujah and Najaf are battle-shaping activities for the next phase of the Global War on Terror or simply temporizing, as Ralph Peters seems to feel, is the real strategic mystery. It is one whose answer we desperately need to know, and probably will in due time.