Monday, January 10, 2005

Trading Punches

The terrorist campaign to derail elections scheduled for January 30 approach continues apace.

Baghdad, Iraq Jan 10, 2005 -- The deputy police chief of Baghdad and his son, also a police officer, were shot dead Monday, and a suicide car bomb detonated inside a police station courtyard, killing at least four policemen, the latest violence ahead of the country's landmark election. Scores of police and regional government officials have been assassinated in recent months, part of the insurgents' campaign to try to instill fear ahead of the Jan. 30 vote and to hunt down people who are perceived as collaborators with the U.S.-led coalition. Last week, gunmen shot dead the governor of Baghdad, Ali al-Haidari, and six of his bodyguards.

A background briefing provided by a senior State Department official expected a large turnout in Shia and Kurdish areas, with the Sunni areas the more problematic. The campaign to stop the elections is expected to intensify with emphasis on more spectacular attacks.

Ayatollah Sistani issued a religious edict, a fatwa, saying that it is an obligation for people to vote, men and women. Everyone that we are talking to from the Shi'a community is telling us that that edict is having a significant impact on people's thinking. And I expect to see a very heavy turnout among Iraq's Shi'a. In the northern part of the country, in the Kurdish areas, of course they have already been having elections since they set up the regional government there several years ago... So I think you're going to have very heavy turnout in the Kurdish areas, very heavy turnout in Shi'a areas. Those two parts of Iraq alone by themselves probably comprise 75 to 80 percent of Iraq's overall population. ...

In Sunni areas I think it's going to vary from location to location. Some places, obviously Ramadi (and Fallujah ?), are going to be less high than in Shi'a or Kurdish areas. There are some parts of the Sunni Triangle where the security right now, frankly, is not that bad. In parts of Diyala Province, some parts of Salahuddin Province, some parts of Nineveh Province, is not all blood and fire and destruction in all places every day. Some places obviously do have problems, but many places do not.

The press is expected to focus on the 'growing chaos' in Iraq in the lead up to the elections. But the Senior State Department briefer paradoxically characterized the expected violence as on par with the Algerian elections of the 1990s and actually improving.

But I want to say that I was in Algeria during the mid-1990s. I was the political officer at the American embassy then, and the violence in Algeria in the mid-1990s -- (audio break) -- go back and look at it, really was not any less than what we're seeing in some of the Sunni provinces here. Yet they were able to conduct an election in those -- in the worst-hit part of Algeria, they got voter turnout 50 percent. ...

Q Rick Whittle with the Dallas Morning News again. I just wanted to ask -- I wanted to follow up on your answer to my original question about the security situation. Why do you say the security situation has gotten better in the last six weeks? I believe the governor of Baghdad was assassinated today and yesterday was quite a violent day. If you could just explain what you mean, how you see it that way.

SR. STATE DEPT. OFFICIAL: To be simple about it, the number of attacks against coalition and Iraqi forces six weeks ago was probably about double what it is now. ...  number of ... soldiers getting killed six weeks ago was much higher than it is now. They have changed their targets more to softer targets -- going after police, going after National Guard and things like that -- but the number of attacks themselves has dropped sharply.

ABC and Reuters ran a story noting the same trend: fewer, but more powerful attacks -- headline grabbers. "We've noticed in the recent couple of weeks that the IEDs (improvised explosive devices) are all being built more powerfully, with more explosive effort in a smaller number of IEDs," Army Brigadier General David Rodriguez told reporters at a Pentagon briefing on Iraq. "That trend has occurred over the last two weeks," he added about the new tactic. "It is mainly in the Sunni triangle."

Meanwhile US forces have been striking frequently in the city of Mosul, once heavily Kurdish but now inhabited by a large number of Sunnis who moved there during the Saddam era and in Anbar province. Most have been raids against insurgent networks which are described on this page. However there was at least one airstrike which hit a house occupied by civilians, described here, probably a precision raid against possible leadership targets which went very badly awry. Coalition officers claim that a significant number of insurgent cells, including a ring close to Abu Musab Zarqawi, have been broken up. But these efforts have a merely suppressive quality to them. Increasingly, coalition officers are placing the heart of the insurgency in Syria. The Associated Press, for example, described a trip by Richard Armitage to Syria with the object of persuading the leadership to stop anti-Iraqi activities.

The U.S. State Department's second-ranking official is traveling to Syria to talk with officials there about the infiltration of insurgents across the Syrian border into Iraq. ... "We have felt that it's very, very important for Syria to continue to take further action on the issues of infiltration of insurgents or support for insurgents in Iraq," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. The administration believes Iraqis who served under ousted President Saddam Hussein are using Syria as a base of operations for supporting the insurgency.

The Chicago Tribune reports the same issues are being taken up by Iraqi President Iyad Allawi and former US Presidential candidate John Kerry.

Day after day, and despite a general ban on allowing Syrian men to enter Iraq, the Marines face a constant flow of people trying to cross the border, Syrians and those claiming to be Syrian, a steady stream of the inscrutable. The Marines' job is to stop them--an assignment not nearly so simple as it might seem--and to turn them away. "You get a lot of them who insist they are going to visit their dying mothers in Iraq," said Sgt. Steven Miller of suburban Kansas City, Mo. "Everyone seems to have a dying mother."

Iraqi officials allege, more angrily of late, that the Syrian government is enabling Iraq's roiling insurgency. They say they have growing proof, from documents, informants and interrogations, that Iraqis operating openly in Syria are behind a flow of money, weapons, reinforcements and orders to the guerrillas.

American officials are more cautious. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage left a weekend visit to Damascus praising the Syrians for tightening their border with Iraq. But he also warned that the United States was displeased with what it sees as, at least, Syrian coddling of insurgents. ... On Thursday, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) arrived in Syria to discuss some of the same issues. Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi issued a vague warning last week, though he did not mention Syria by name.

The elections, the growing focus on Syria and suggestions that the US will revamp its strategy in Iraq are all elements in a tantalizing article in the Daily Telegraph entitled Rumsfeld ready to send in Iraqi hit squads.

An investigation by The Telegraph found that large numbers of Syrians were crossing the border to attack American forces. ... The Pentagon is considering plans to train Iraqi hit squads to quash the Sunni-led insurgency and may sanction clandestine raids into Syria led by special forces. ... "We have to find a way to take the offensive against the insurgents," said one senior officer. "Right now, we are playing defence. And we are losing." The scheme is one of a number being considered as Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, tries to ease the pressure on his overstretched forces. ...

One military source said: "The Sunni population is paying no price for the support it is giving to the terrorists. From their point of view, it is cost-free. We have to change that equation." The squads would also seek to kill or capture the former Saddam aides believed to be leading the insurgency and would be Iraqi-led. Newsweek says the interim administration of the prime minister, Iyad Allawi, is pressing for this more ruthless approach to Sunni guerrillas. Raids into Syria would also include Iraqi forces, but would be American-led. ... There are other signs of growing urgency in the Pentagon as the situation in Iraq worsens. Last week, Mr Rumsfeld dispatched a highly regarded four-star officer, Gen Gary Luck, to Iraq to review the entire military strategy.

The apparent confidence of the "Senior State Department Official" that Iraqi elections will be held on time is not necessarily inconsistent with the idea that US strategy is entering a new phase. The refusal to postpone the elections, the likely voting patterns and the absence of a deal to almost guarantee that the incoming Iraqi government will be largely Shi'ite and Kurdish. The uncompromising position of the Sunni insurgents will create a post-electoral Iraq where they have been largely excluded: a choice they have strategically embraced. With Syrian sanctuary and extensive clandestine networks in Sunni areas surrounding Baghdad, the insurgents hope to destabilize the new government, believing the America too overstretched to take on Damascus directly.

The more the American military struggles to stabilize Iraq, the Syrians may reason, the less likely the Bush administration will be to directly confront the Damascus regime or try to dictate changes in the Middle East. Tied down fighting in Iraq, the thousands of U.S. troops deployed across Syria's eastern border are not so unnerving. As it is, patrolling the border area, vast and desolate and reminiscent of West Texas, is a relentless challenge for the Marines and a new group of Iraqi border agents.

The US was clearly content to stay on the defensive while it attained its strategic goal of creating a new Iraqi State. Now that achievement is in sight the US is faced with the choice of whether to remain on the defensive over go over to the attack. As long as Damascus can persuade the new Iraqi government it will not directly threaten it, Syria and the Ba'athist holdouts can hope to eventually pry the incoming government in Baghdad away from the Americans. One way the US can neutralize that potential danger is to pre-emptively transform the new Iraq into a direct threat to Syria. It is possible that US planners are examining offensive options that do not necessarily involve a conventional invasion of Syria. What seems certain is that US leaders are rapidly approaching a new decision point.

The Times said retired General Gary Luck's review will be "open ended" and include a broader look at US military operations, including US troop levels and the strategy for fighting the insurgency. But Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita said Luck's mission was to assess the efforts to train and field Iraqi security forces, whose halting performance has compared unfavorably with an Iraqi insurgency that appears to be growing in strength and sophistication. "His mission is to go over there and take a look at Iraqi security force development -- where are we, how's it going -- provide an assessment to the commanders over there," he told reporters.

Rumsfeld's decision to send Luck arose from discussions with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, and his top commanders over forces in Iraq, General John Abizaid and General George Casey, officials said.... "We've done this on so many occasions. We sent five or six assessment teams in the spring," he said. "It was just another one of those operations, to have a fresh set of eyes look at Iraqi security force development, look at any insights any guidance, any suggestions, recommendations."

Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser under the president’s father, warned Jan. 6 that the Iraq elections "rather than turning out to be a promising turning point, have the great potential for deepening the conflict." Scowcroft, a retired general, said predicted sharper ethnic divisions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims after the elections and a slide into "incipient civil war."