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November 30, 2005

Transferring Control

HUSAYBAH, IRAQ: The morning began with a patrol in the darkness to a home on the far side of Husaybah. 1st Platoon of Lima Company, 3rd Marines, 6th Battalion, received a tip that am Improvised Explosive Device was located outside the home. After a scan of the property, the joint Marine & Iraqi Army squad entered the home for a search. Nothing was found but a startled family of three. They cooperated with the search, and we left waving goodbye to the smiling father and child. Mom didn’t appear too happy.

Jackals On Patrol

The Jackals of 1st Platoon move out to patrol Husaybah.

The squad returned to Battle Position Beirut to pick up the rest of the company. They were heading to Battle Position Hue City to provide security for a ceremony to turn over control of the western border to the Iraqi Security Forces . On the way to Hue, 1st Platoon encountered a possible IED. Buried in the ground, tail up, was a mortar round. An Explosive Ordnance Disposal team was called in to destroy the device. The round was not rigged to explode. “Lots of times the locals find rounds and bury them in clear view so we can find them”, said Corporal Gauls.

Mortar

Mortar found on the walk to BP Hue City.

In attendance for the ceremony were Iraqi Minister of Defense Saadoun al-Dulaimi; General George Casey, Commander of Multinational Forces – Iraq; Deputy Minister of the Interior Brigadier General Ahmed Al-Khafaggi; and Colonel Stephen Davis, Commander of Regimental Combat Team – 2.

Minister of Defense Dulaimi

Iraqi Minister of Defense Saadoun al-Dulaimi at Hue City

Minister Dulaimi stated “we don’t have security issues on the borders with Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iran” but “there is a problem in this region” - on the Syrian border. He claimed the Iraqi security forces would assume full control “in one year”. The border region discussed spanned from “the northern border with Turkey to the southern border with Jordan”, said Gen Casey. “We shouldn’t look for a reduction [of U.S. Forces] here… there are two brigades of Iraqi border guards backed by seven Iraqi Army brigades, which are backed by Coalition forces.” Gen Casey also expressed the need for Coalition forces to remain in Iraq in order to assist the Iraqi Security Forces.

At the end of the ceremony, the Iraqi Army raised the flag over Hue City, and the platoon of Iraqi Army and platoon of Desert Wolves, of the 2nd Brigade of the Al Anbar Regional Border Police, celebrated, surrounded and cheered Minister Dulaimi as he bade goodbye.

Desert Wolves Celebrate

Desert Wolves celebrate after ceremony.

After returning from the events at Hue City, 1st Platoon encountered two RPG rounds and one 105 mortar shell. None were wired for detonation. Later in the evening, “Icy’, the platoon’s interpreter, discovered a trigger device for an IED near the market across the street. After an intensive search, no explosives were discovered. The al-Qaeda and insurgency’s guns and bombs were silent in Husaybah as the Iraqi government raised the flag.

Operation Iron Hammer in Hit

Coalition forces have launched Operation Iron Hammer in the city of Hit. This is a multi-battalion operation consisting of one Iraqi and two to three U.S. battalions; approximately 500 Iraqi Army soldiers from 2nd Brigade, 7th Iraqi Army Division and 1,500 Marines and Sailors from the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit along with 500 Soldiers from 2nd Battalion-114th Field Artillery Regiment.”

The Coalition forces currently occupy Hit, but Iron Hammer is directed at a portion of the city called the Hai Al Becker region which lies on the Eastern bank of the Euphrates River. Intelligence indicates the area is “an al-also believed to be a stopping point for insurgents, as they transit the ‘rat lines’ down the Euphrates River from Syria into the interior of Iraq.” Operation Iron Hammer is but another operation in the Anbar Campaign.

Hit has been the focus of Coalition operations in the past, including Operation Sword last July and a classic take down of the terrorist Al-Ahwal Brigade. There is a Coalition Civil Affairs Group operating in Hit as well to assist in restoring public services and building the local government.

November 29, 2005

Combined Forces

HUSAYBAH, IRAQ: A new batch of Iraqi troops rotated into service at Battle Position Beirut as the last group was heading out on leave. The Iraqi soldiers are an extremely friendly bunch and very interested in getting to know you. Several of the soldiers spoke English, and served as translators for the groups who came by to say hello. All were extremely interested in the satellite connection and accessing the Internet from such a remote location. Looks of wonder appeared on their faces as they repeated “Internet? Internet!” To be fair, many of the Marines expressed amazement as well.

We exchanged stories and discussed our families. They noticed the picture of my daughter on the open Instant Messenger window, and asked for more. I shared photographs of my family, which brought forth smiles and hearty claps on the back. Many of the soldiers are married and have children, and expressed that they missed their families as well. This is a universal bond all soldiers share.

Their backgrounds varied. The men were from age 18 to 43, and came from all corners of the country. Mohammed is from Najaf, Ahmed is from Mosul, Hussein is from Hit. They came from Basra, Baghdad, Haditha, and small towns across Iraqi which I was unfamiliar. They are Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.

During the day, a public works crew from Husaybah requested to repair a water line running from the water tower through Beirut, and was permitted access to the post. The line needed to be dug up, and U.S. And Iraqi soldiers shouldered picks and shovels, and began digging, side by side. The problem was discovered, and the repair was put off until the next day. If fixed, this will gain some good will from the residents of Husaybah.

While the work crew worked, a rocket, or mortar, or RPG, or some other explosive was detonated in the far east of the city. We heard the clap and saw the smoke plume rise. The cause of the explosion was never determined, and no civilian or military casualties were reported. There were no further incidents throughout the day. A hot meal was brought for dinner, and U.S. Marines and Iraqi soldiers joined the line together, and sat an ate on the train platform in small groups.

The Marines of 1st Platoon of Lima Company have varied opinions of the Iraqi soldiers, which range from unimpressed to pleasantly surprised at their courage and fighting abilities. Several explained how Iraqi troops saved their hides during Operation Steel Curtain, when the Iraqis identified a home the Marines were going to enter as being rigged with IEDs. When Explosive Ordnance Disposal arrived on scene and detonated the device, the entire house was destroyed in the blast. “Most of our squad would have been killed in that house. They saved my and my friends’ lives that day” said Lance Corporal Mendoza.

The Marines have worked with several groups of Iraqi troops, they’ll tell you there are good soldiers and bad soldiers, and some units are better than others. This is the story of all armies. The words of respect, coming from these Marines who have set high standards for performance, gives hope for the future of the Iraqi Army.

November 28, 2005

Walking Husaybah

The nighttime mounted patrol in Husaybah was followed by a pair of foot patrols. I linked up with the 1st Platoon of Lima Company of the 3rd Marines, 6th Battalion, call sign Jackal 1. 1st Lieutenant William Oren took me on a patrol through the southern neighborhoods outside of Battle Position Beirut.

We snaked through the streets, and my impression of Husaybah changed little from the night’s view. Interspersed with the trash, rubble, pieced-together walled homes and the ever present dogs was a mix of interesting architecture and a multitude of smiling Iraqi children and their parents.

Corporal Austin Hall directed the movement of the mixed squad of Marines and Iraqi troops, and warned me that if children are present, then all is well and the “muj” will not attack. We ran into children every where we went, and some crafty ones managed to meet us several times, always looking for candy or other handouts.

The platoon’s interpreter, or “terp” is a young Brit of Iraqi lineage named Icy, much wiser than his twenty years. He just turned twenty during this deployment and is on his third year as a Coalition interpreter, having served in Afghanistan and elsewhere in Iraq. Icy moved along the city street with the ease of a city mayor, and often stopped at haji shops to purchase sweets for us to distribute to the children.

Both Lieutenant Oren and Corporal Hall explained the successful patrol in Husaybah this afternoon would have been unheard of just three weeks ago prior to Operation Steel Curtain. “Over three weeks ago, we wouldn’t have gotten 200 feet into this city without taking fire”, said Cpl Hall.

The Iraqi troops that patrolled with the squad were quite impressive. Having served as an infantryman, I was curious to see how they handled themselves while patrolling through an urban environment, one of the most dangerous tasks for the infantry. An Iraqi soldier ran point, the entire way. They understood and responded to hand signals, maintained their intervals and guarded intersections during crossings. All the while talking to the residents of Husaybah. Other than their uniforms, they were virtually indistinguishable from their Marine counterparts - no small feat.

The evening proved even more interesting. A quick patrol was put together, but for a different purpose. The objective was a meeting with local sheikhs of a tribe in Husaybah. Another mixed patrol of Iraqi solders and Marines took us to the home of a local sheikh and several senior leaders of his tribe. Lieutenant Oren and Icy were to attend, and invited me to join.

We removed our boots and gear, and entered the home, to receive warm greetings from the tribal leaders. We sat on the blanketed floor, sipped sweet chai, and smoked cigarettes while Lieutenant Oren and the sheikhs discussed, via Icy, various issues of import to both the tribe and the Marines. The Marines and Iraqi soldiers stood by for almost an hour and a half until the meeting ended, with smiles, warm handshakes and a group photo.

The walk back to Battle Position Beirut through the darkness of Husaybah ended as uneventful as the morning patrol. What a difference one month makes in this corner of Iraq.

Internal Upheaval in Iran

The current controversy in Iran surrounding President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s repeatedly rejected Oil Ministry appointments is like a barometer measuring all-things-Ahmadinejad in Iran. The Mejlis (parliament) has rejected each of the three nominees Ahmadinejad has put forth on the grounds that they are inner-circle cronies and not necessarily in the best interest of Iran or its oil industry.

With the standard window for appointment of posts three months, Ahmadinejad now sees the latest rejection as the opening of a new three month window to nominate another Oil Minister.

“The government’s reading is that a new three-month period has been established and there is no problem about the Oil Ministry being run by a caretaker,” Gholamhossein Elham, head of Ahmadinejad’s office, told state television.

Iran is the world’s second largest exporter of oil, so the Oil Ministry post is of great significance, both within Iran and abroad. With his presumption of another 3-month window, Ahmadinejad not only is at odds with the elected Mejlis who have rejected each of his nominees, but now also with the Guardian Council on the other side.

Guardian Council Spokesman Abbasali Kadkhodai said the constitutional experts had not been consulted by the government for a legal ruling on the time allowed.

“Of course, my personal opinion is that the time foreseen for the introduction of ministers in this article of the institution — that is to say three months — is non-renewable,” he said.

“The president must nominate a new oil minister as soon as possible,” he said.

But the internal struggles are not limited to the Oil Ministry appointment by any stretch of the imagination. As pointed out in significant detail by The Washington Institute’s Mehdi Khalaji, Iran’s new president has facilitated a renewed War on Culture. The new Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance was an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps veteran and part of Ayatollah Khameini’s inner circle with a history of attacks on journalists and activists. Renewed restrictions on publishing, dress codes, movie production and, via intimidation, controlled journalism are being ushered in.

The new Iranian president’s current tussle with the Mejlis over Oil Ministry appointments can be seen as an indicator of broader struggles he is experiencing, including with the Guardian Council and the sophisticated citizens of Iran resistant to rolling back the cultural clock. At what point and to what degree the internal power struggles further influence Iran’s international policies (such as the coming nuclear re-negotiations with the EU) will be important to recognize and interesting to watch.

The Hounds of Husaybah

HUSAYBAH, IRAQ: The evening kicked off with a ride in the darkness from Camp Qaim, which is situated at the railroad station South of Al Qaim, to Camp Gannon, the outpost that sits directly between the city of Husaybah and the Syrian border. The ride was uneventful, and the convoy of up-armored Hummers passed through the desert and into Karabilah, then Husaybah. It was difficult to see in the dark, making the most notable feature the alternating pockets of light and darkness along the road.

Upon arrival at Camp Gannon, I met with Captain Richard Pitchford, the commander of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines. Capt Pitchford detailed Lima Company’s role in Operation Steel Curtain, and explained the company’s disposition in the city of Husaybah. Along with Camp Gannon, there are two Battle Positions within the city; Beirut, which sits in the South at the train station, and Hue City, which is in a community center in the East.

After battling the insurgency in Operation Steel Curtain, Lima Company’s current mission is to maintain a presence in the city, restore order and facilitate reconstruction and local governance. Lima Company, in conjunction with Iraqi Army units stationed at Camp Gannon, Beirut and Hue City, actively patrol the city at all hours.

I joined up with the 4th Mobile Assault Platoon, call sign Jackal 4, for a zero-dark-thirty patrol. The platoon is led by 1st Lieutenant Carey. Staff Sergeant Strong commanded the vehicle I rode in; Corporal Witzell was the driver; “Doc” Pruett the convoy medic; and Lance Corporal Ramage manned the gun in the cold night’s air. Capt Pitchford loaned me a pair of night vision goggles and we were on our way.

The patrol sped off in full blackout, piloted by drivers with night vision goggles. The Jackals escorted a Civil Affairs Group (CAG) to and from Hue City. The “440 District”, named after the number of buildings in the neighborhood, was paid a visit, as were neighborhoods in the north and south of the city, and a remote desert region with buildings and walls scattered about.

At night the streets of Husaybah often appear as series of mazes quite mean by American standards. The houses are surrounded by ramshackle walls; rubble, trash, abandoned cars and fifty gallon drums are strewn along the roadways. All are potential hiding places for IEDs. Since Steel Curtain, four IEDs have been uncovered, but its unknown if these are bombs missed in previous sweeps, or ones newly deployed. Staff Sergeant Strong believes insurgents are attempting to reenter the city and resume attacks on the Coalition.

No IEDs or insurgents were encountered during the early morning’s patrol. The only takers were the myriad of Husaybah’s dogs, who howl loudly and seem ever present. The jihadis ceded the night to the hounds of Husaybah and the Jackals of 4th Platoon.

November 27, 2005

Steel Curtain Unmasked

AL QAIM: The western branch of the Euphrates River, what is know as the Al Qa’im region, which spans from Husaybah on the Syrian border to the town of Ubaydi, at a heart-shaped bend in the river, has long been a haven for al-Qaeda and the insurgency. While the problem was well known, for some time the right mix of forces was not available to address the problem.

Until these forces were on hand, the Coalition conducted a series of raids to keep the insurgents off balance and from gaining too strong a foothold in the region. Operations Matador, Spear, Quick Strike and a host of others are examples of such targeted strikes. Many insurgent and al-Qaeda commanders and foot soldiers were killed in these attacks, but until the Coalition could muster the forces to stay in the towns, their impact was limited.

The inclusion of Iraqi forces has been seen as vital to the efforts. These forces would have the knowledge of the local customs and language, as well as the ability to discern between domestic and foreign fighters.

The development and deployment of the Iraqi forces in the peaceful provinces of Iraq has also freed up U.S. Forces to conduct combat operations in Anbar province. As Iraqi units took responsibility for security in the Shiite and Kurdish regions, as well as in Baghdad, excess U.S. Forces became available to clean out the rat’s nests along the Euphrates River. What was a limited Coalition presence in the Al Qa’im region in March of 2005 has now transformed into a major presence of Coalition forces, and allowed for the successful execution of Operation Steel Curtain.

Battle Plan for Steel Curtain

The roots of the operation trace back to the beginning of October, during Iron Fist and River Gate. Iron Fist, which was directed at the small town of Sa’dah, was actually a diversion, designed to catch the attention of the insurgents along the Euphrates River and distract them from the real blow to be delivered, which was River Gate in Haditha, Haqlaniyah and Barwana.

Iron Fist was so well received by the local population of Sa’dah that Coalition forces set up Battle Positions in the town and pressed the fight to western Karabilah, where they halted at the “Emerald Wadi”, a dried up riverbed separating the towns. A month’s worth of exchanges occurred between Marines in Sa’dah and the insurgents in Karabilah’s “Shark’s Fin”, a neighborhood intelligence indicated contained a high concentration of fighters. According to Major Patterson, the Executive Officer of the 3/6, “an estimated two hundred enemy KIA [killed in action] and untold numbers of wounded” were inflicted in the time between Iron Fist and Steel Curtain.

When Steel Curtain kicked off on November 5th, the Marines had another trick in store for the insurgents. Prior attacks occurred from the east, and the insurgents expected this attack to come from that direction as well, this time from outposts in Sa’dah. Instead, the Marines of the 3/6 and the 2/1, and the 1/1/1 of the Iraqi Army, swung from Camp Al Qa’im across the desert west towards the Syrian Border, positioned their forces, and struck at Husaybah from the West.

The “440 district”, a neighborhood in the southwest of Husaybah, was hit first by the Marines of the 2/1. Then, the southern neighborhoods of Husaybah were the next target, followed shortly afterward by the northern portion of the city, which was the responsibility of the Marines of the 3/6. The farming districts north along the river were cleared by the soldiers of the 3/504 Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne. The soldiers of the 4/14 Strykers out of Rawah patrolled the northern banks of the Euphrates to seal off escape routes to the north.

The 2/1 and the 3/6 met moderate to intense fighting in Husaybah, and continued the push to Karabilah, where little resistance was met. The assault force halted when it reached the “Shark’s Fin”, and units from the 3/6 swung north of the neighborhood and pressed south. Numerous IEDs, weapons caches and homes rigged as bombs were discovered in Husaybah and Karabilah, and over fifty insurgents were killed during this phase of the operation.

After Karabilah was cleared, 3/6 held the ground and immediately began counter-insurgency operations and back-clearing of the cities. The Marines of the 2/1 and the soldiers from the 3/504 PIR swung west to strike at Ubaydi. Here is where the terrorists made their stand, and inflicted heavy casualties on the Marines of the 2/1.

Ubaydi is split into two sections, Old Ubaydi, which is a traditional river farming village, and New Ubaydi, a modern housing complex. The soldiers 3/504 cleared Old Ubaydi, while the Marines of the 2/1 struck at New Ubaydi, where the bulk of the heavy fighting occurred. The tight packed housing made for ideal fighting conditions for the defending force of insurgents. Eight Marines, including a company commander and a platoon commander, were killed in a well laid trap. The 2/1 took sixteen casualties in the fight.

Throughout the operation, the 1/1/1 of the Iraqi Army and the Desert Protection Force worked in conjunction with the U.S. Forces, and proved to be an instrumental part of the operation. The Iraqi Army battalion participated in combat operations, and they and Desert Protectors were able to identify foreign fighters and local insurgents.

After the Fight

What was previously a limited presence at Camp Al Qa’im and Camp Gannon has now branched out to an expanded presence throughout the Al Qa’im region. The Marines of the 2/1 and most of 1st LAR, and the Soldiers of the 3/504 PIR have moved elsewhere, but the Marines of the 3/6 and a company from 1st LAR remain on hand in the Al Qa’im Region, along with two battalion of the Iraqi Army (1-1-1 and 2-1-1).

These forces jointly man the forward operating bases, known as “Battle Positions” or BPs, throughout the region. Elements of Lima Company are in two BPs around Husaybah (BPs Hue City and Beirut); India Company maintains a BP in Karabilah (BP Tarwara); Kilo Company maintains two BPs in Sa’dah (Iwo Jima and Chosin); a company from 1st LAR (Light Armored Reconnaissance) is in Al Qa’im; and Whiskey company maintains three BPs in Ubaydi. They continue to patrol the region and conduct counterinsurgency operations to root out remaining cells and prevent the re-infiltration of insurgent forces.

The 3/6 is still encountering IEDs in the region, particularly in the Shark’s Fin of Karabilah, where it is believed new IEDs are being placed along the roads. The month’s worth of fighting in the interval between Iron Fist and Steel Curtain has build up some animosity among the locals, who were sympathetic to al-Qaeda and the insurgency to begin with.

The Coalition is working to shift an emphasis from intense combat operations in the region towards reconstruction as well as empowering the local Iraqis to assume control of local police forces and services. The Coalition is constantly meeting with tribal leaders and are working to improve ties with the local population.

The fight to secure the region in Steel Curtain is easy by comparison to the task at hand, which Colonel Stephen Davis, the Commander of Regimental Combat Team 2, refers to as “managing the problem.” This will require a long term presence in the region to bring along the nascent Iraqi Army and coach the local Iraqi government, lest we cede control of the region to Zarqawi’s minions and squander the sacrifices made by the Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen who fought, bled and died during the year’s struggle in Western Iraq.

November 26, 2005

Israel Defending on Three Fronts

Several events dictate the atmosphere in Israel and the region heading into next week. Particularly Lebanon, Gaza and Jerusalem news are at the forefront of our attention.

To the north, Israel returned the bodies of the four Hezbollah terrorists at the request of the Lebanese government. Upon receipt of the bodies, several thousand Hezbollah supporters rallied in Beirut, chanting “Death to Israel” and “Death to America”. The four were killed in a Hezbollah raid this past Monday that apparently was designed to take Israeli prisoners, possibly to draw the IDF across the Blue Line and into Lebanon to escalate the situation on the ground. Aware of the planned operation beforehand, IDF leaders were in contact with UN peacekeepers (UNIFIL) beforehand.

To the south, the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt was officially reopened, and the Israelis will have no direct control of the flow. On the first day of its re-opening, 1,500 passed from Gaza into Egypt during the four-hour open operations. It is expected to be a 24-hour border crossing eventually. Israel keeps tabs on the flow to and from Egypt through video surveillance from a nearby base. The Rafah Crossing is overseen by EU observers in a deal brokered by the United States. With travelers no longer subject to Israeli questioning and scrutiny, how secure the PA and the EU observers can maintain the crossing (from Hamas and Islamic Jihad weapons trafficking) remains to be seen.

In other EU-Israeli-Palestinian developments to the east, the EU issued a stinging rebuke of Israel’s handling of the East Jerusalem area.

The confidential report, prepared by top diplomats representing the 25 EU governments in the city, warns that the chances of a two-state solution are being eroded by Israel’s “deliberate policy” - in breach of international of law - of “completing the annexation of East Jerusalem”. European Foreign Ministers this week vetoed planned publication of the report - which also warns that rapid expansion of Jewish settlements in and around East Jerusalem, along with use of the separation barrier to isolate East Jerusalem from the West Bank, “risk radicalising the hitherto relatively quiescent Palestinian population of East Jerusalem”.

With the ‘confidential’ report reported on Friday, this is a political development that will begin to play out in the news in the coming week. How the politically charged report from the EU will be greeted in Israeli political circles remains to be seen. Reportedly, one third of Israel’s Likud Party still supports Ariel Sharon, even after his defection from the party and creation of the new centrist Kadima Party. It will certainly not be a slow news week from Israel.

November 25, 2005

Terrorists' Toys For Tots

AL ASAD AB, IRAQ: The Thanksgiving Day car bombing in the town of Mahmudiyah encapsulates the nature of terror attacks directed at the Iraq people. Thursday’s attack killed thirty and wounded forty. The location was a hospital, and the target was American troops handing out toys and food to children. ABC News voices the reaction of a stricken mother; “There was an explosion at the gate of the hospital… My children are gone. My brother is gone.” Another car bombing in Hillah was directed at an soda stand, and killed eleven and wounded 17.

Outside of Abu Ghraib, Iraqi soldiers discover a car with children’s dolls rigged with various forms of explosives. Iraqi government spokesperson Leith Kubba states “This is the same type of doll as that handed out on several occasions by US soldiers to children.”

al-Qaeda’s campaign against the innocent is nothing new. In July, twenty seven children were killed in a suicide attack on American soldiers who were giving candy to Iraqi children. There are numerous instances of al-Qaeda using disabled children – those with Downs Syndrome or other mental impairments – as suicide bombers or grenade throwers.

Those who advocate a withdrawal from Iraq wholly ignore the nature of the enemy we face, an enemy that has no compunction about slaughtering the innocent to achieve their political goals. Also lost in the debate is the fact that al-Qaeda is taking a real beating in Iraq, particularly in its former “Islamic Republics” in western Anbar province. Iraqi troops are entering the fight in battalion sized formations, the terror networks are being slowly and systematically dismantled, and leadership turnover due to precision operations is frighteningly high for the organization. The calls for withdrawal only embolden the terrorists to commit more spectacular acts of violence in order to paint a picture of chaos.

Syria Agrees to Questioning Officials

Confirming the quiet deadline referenced yesterday, Syria and the Mehlis Commission have today agreed to use the UN headquarters in Vienna, Switzerland, as the site for holding interviews of at least five Syrian officials implicated by the Mehlis Commission Report on the murder of former Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri. (The full text of the report can be read here or here.)

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Walid Moallem broke the news in a press conference in Damascus. Syria had claimed previously that it feared for the safety of Syrian ‘civil servants’ were they to be questioned in Beirut, Lebanon. But the real concern for Syria has almost certainly the fear of the potential (and possibly likely) arrest of these officials by the Mehlis Commission after their questioning. This is indicated by the language used in the Syrian press conference today in Damascus.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Walid Moallem told a news conference that the breakthrough in negotiations with the United Nations came after Syria received “reassurances” about respect for its sovereignty and “guarantees concerning the rights of the individuals” to be questioned. He did not elaborate.

Although the use of the word ‘sovereignty’ is not directly attributed to Moallem in this particular instance, it has been used frequently by Syrian spokesmen in the past and is precisely what he is addressing, meaning they cannot be compelled to turn over the officials to outside control. The “guarantees concerning the rights of the individuals” speaks directly to Syria’s fear of arrests without using the word.

It is not coincidental that no date for the interviews in Vienna were included with the news of the agreement. It is in Syria’s best interest to forestall any action by the UN Security Council for as long as possible. Mehlis is under order to report progress in the investigation, specifically the level of Syrian cooperation, to the UN Security Council no later than December 15, barely three weeks away.

Syria is certainly not out of the woods. The BBC’s John Leyne correctly points out an inconsistency that has long plagued the issue of the investigation.

The UN originally said it wanted to speak to six Syrian officials, but Syria is talking of five officials travelling to Vienna, he says.

As with any game of chess, there is certainly more than meets the eye. (The initial Mehlis report had several key names deleted from the ‘official’ version. An analysis on the discrepancy here.)

Furthermore, agreeing to a compromise on the location of the interviews may be a step forward. However, the true measure of ‘full cooperation’ will be determined within the interviews themselves by the nature of the answers provided by those interviewed. Evasive, non-specific and contradictory testimony – already experienced by the investigation – will not bode well for Syria.

The discrepancy in the number of officials to be interviewed seems to already set the tone for the expected level of cooperation.

The Clock Ticks for Syria

There are two important dates for Syria regarding the UN investigation into the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. One is December 15, when the issue is scheduled to be brought before the United Nations Security Council by the Mehlis Commission in accordance with UN Resolution 1636, which demands Syrian cooperation with the Mehlis Commission’s investigation. It is on this date that steps will likely be initiated to impose sanctions on Syria for non-cooperation with the Mehlis investigation team, which has been operating from Lebanon. Section I, Paragraph 13 states:

13. Requests the Commission to report to the Council on the progress of the inquiry by 15 December 2005, including on the cooperation received by the Commission from the Syrian authorities, or anytime before that date if the Commission deems that such cooperation does not meet the requirements of this resolution, so that the Council, if necessary, could consider further action;

This brings us to the issue of the other date. Today. Note the phrase: “…or anytime before that date if the Commission deems that such cooperation does not meet the requirements of this resolution…”

It has been asserted by the Beirut Daily Star and London’s al-Hayat that Mehlis had sent to Syria a deadline of Thursday (November 24), yesterday, for its full cooperation. Now that this date has passed, if such a deadline was in fact relayed to Syria by the commission, it is entirely possible that the UN Security Council could be hearing from Mehlis much sooner than December 15, still 3 weeks away. Al-Hayat reported that Mehlis will be awaiting the Syrian response today.

At issue are key figures in Bashar Assad’s regime who have been implicated in the Mehlis Report on the Hariri murder of February 14, 2005. Mehlis wants to interview them and ask questions. Syria has made repeated public statements that it wants to ‘cooperate fully’, but refuses to allow Mehlis to interview Syrian regime members in Lebanon – where Mehlis has the authority and power to arrest them.

On Thursday, the Mehlis Commission ordered the arrest of the former head of Lebanese military intelligence monitoring services, Ghassan Tufeili. His home was searched and he was held for interrogation for five hours and later released.

Whether Syria fears arrests or not, the UN Security Council Resolution 1636 states that Syria “must cooperate fully with the [Mehlis] Commission”. What has ensued since the release of the Mehlis Commission’s report on the murder of Rafik Hariri and the Security Council’s Resolution 1536 has been a series of attempts to negotiate different locations for the interviews, including Damascus and Switzerland.

Frustrated with Syrian delay, US Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, said this week that Resolution 1636 does not demand that Syria negotiate or ask for mediators, but cooperate. Stressing that the Security Council has entrusted Mehlis to carry out the investigation as he sees fit, on Wednesday Bolton said, “Syria should stop writing letters and start cooperating with Mr. Mehlis.”

Tensions are indeed high. The next few days could be very telling and fast paced for Syria, the Mehlis Commission, the UN Security Council and Lebanon itself as a critical yet quiet deadline seems to have just lapsed.

November 23, 2005

Operational Issues

BAGHDAD, IRAQ: As Operation Steel Curtain on the Syrian border comes to a close, the Coalition continues to press operations in hot areas. Ramadi, which has been the focus of numerous small scale operations over the past months, most recently Panthers and Bruins, is the focus of Operation Lions. The operation is aimed at southern Ramadi and is made up of approximately 200 Iraqi Army Soldiers and 250 Soldiers from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (2-BCT).

A “terrorist hideout” on Bayji Island, which lies on the Tigris river north of Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, a “previously untouched area”, is the subject of an air assault operation called Old Baldy. The mission was conducted by members of the 1st Battalion, 1st Brigade, 4th Iraqi Army Division and the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division. Thirty terrorists and an assortment of weapons and cash were discovered. Iraqi forces took over control of the Forward Operation Base in Tikrit just yesterday.

The Christian Science Monitor discovers that there is a plan to defeat the insurgency, in what it describes as a “New Iraq strategy: Stay in hot spots”. Its close, but it is anything but new; it is a plan we reported a long time ago in The Anbar Campaign. Right now, we are in Phase 2, the process of clearing out the insurgency and al-Qaeda from their western bases and slowly introducing Iraqi troops to assume responsibility for security.

Israeli-Hezbollah Skirmishes Continue

The Israeli clashes with Hezbollah continue, even as the UN presses for a cease-fire. What started with a Hezbollah operation attacking the IDF at Shebaa Farms
has spilled over, perhaps by Syrian and Iranian design with Lebanon merely holding unfortunate real estate. It is surely no coincidence that the attacks coincided with Syria’s crescendo of conflict regarding the Mehlis Report on Rafik Hariri’s assassination and Iran’s war of words with the IAEA and The West over its potential referral to the UN Security Council.

Tuesday, Israel began dropping leaflets over Beirut in an attempt to challenge the Lebanese to recognize that they are merely caught in the crossfire of a proxy war initiated and controlled from outside their own borders. Reportedly, the leaflets read as follows:

“To the Lebanese citizens we demand who is defending Lebanon? Those who are lying to you and sending your children to battles which they are not ready for or up to.

Ask yourselves who wants to go back to destruction and demolition. … Who is a tool in the hands of its Syrian and Iranian masters. … Hezbollah is causing a lot of harms to Lebanon.

The state of Israel is determined to protect its citizens and sovereignty.”

The effects of the Israeli leaflets on the sophisticated Beirut population can be expected to be little to none.

News sources often cite Israeli missile and artillery barrages but little can be found describing what the Israelis are calling the ’largest rocket and mortar barrage in years’ from the Iranian-armed Hezbollah. If this is the case it may be very telling and not bode well for the immediate future.

Meanwhile, as the UN continues to press for a cease-fire, it should be clear that the fighting will cease when Iran and Syria deem it no longer immediately productive.

Iranian Nuclear Dance Continues

The events of the past week seem at first glance fast and furious. Upon closer inspection, it’s nothing more than the club re-mix version of the same old song.

Last Wednesday, an unnamed IAEA official reported that Iran had resumed conversion of Uranium ore at Isfahan. That IAEA official was aptly quoted saying:

“This is a rebuff to efforts to create some space to continue negotiations,” the diplomat close to the IAEA said. “It looks like Iran is confident the board will opt not to refer them.”

Following this, Mohammed elBaredai’s confidential IAEA report on Iran reportedly stated Friday that Iran had been “more forthcoming” but then added, “Iran’s full transparency is indispensable and overdue.” It was also revealed in the not-completely-confidential report that Iran had turned over plans it had obtained that detailed the manufacturing process for milling a hemispherical-shaped uranium payload. CNN referred to the instructions as merely “how to set up the complicated process of enriching uranium, which can used to make nuclear arms,” though later US envoy to the IAEA, Gregory Schulte, made the details known.

“The most disturbing bit of information reported to us was the fact that the inspectors had uncovered this document that describes how to machine uranium into a hemisphere and to our knowledge about the only real reason to machine uranium into a hemisphere is to produce nuclear weapons,” he said.

Iran is reporting to the IAEA that it never asked for the designs, that it merely was provided to them by the Pakistani AQ Kahn network as some sort of sales and marketing pitch. AQ Kahn’s network was in the business of nuclear information and knowledge and, to a lesser degree, equipment on the back-end. The inanity of the Iranian explanation begs two questions:

1. If AQ Kahn sells information and knowledge, why give away any keys to the kingdom in a marketing ploy? Logic dictates otherwise.
2. If Iran never wanted the plans, why, after three years of this dance, are they only now turning over the documents? Again, logic dictates otherwise.

One possible explanation may be that the designs, according to a source familiar with the document, simply are ‘old Chinese designs’, outgrown by the Iranian researchers.

On the ‘nuclear cookbook’ revelations, Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi quickly quipped, “When the U.S. and their allies found out ElBaradei’s report did not have negative points, they made a fuss about this baseless matter.”

Nonetheless, so baseless was the revelation of the ‘nuclear cookbook’ (and knowing all of this well before Friday’s ‘confidential’ IAEA report), Iran’s Majlis (Parliament) voted on Sunday (183-14) to resume enrichment and ban IAEA inspections if Iran were to be referred to the UN Security Council over its nuclear program.

Upholding the tradition of keeping the dance alive, the United States and the EU-3 have thus resolved not to refer Iran to the UNSC at this time, no small victory for Iran. With renewed efforts to outsource the enrichment process to Russia, the US and the EU3 (Britain, Germany and France) have agreed to resume ‘talks’ with Iran, this time bringing Russia to the table as another active player.

The most astute observation of the potential talks (or any past talks for that matter) comes from an unwittingly sage European diplomat.

The diplomat said the idea would be to “talk about (resuming) talks” between Iran and the trio of European Union negotiators on guaranteeing Tehran will not make nuclear weapons.

There will be no resuming talks, just talks about resuming talks. And, once the ‘real’ talks resume, they are sure to prove nothing more than a continuation of circular conversations in a seemingly perpetual spin cycle. It’s a lot like watching the movie ‘Groundhog Day’. Everyone knows precisely what is going to happen, but every time it’s on, you still watch the silly thing.

In short, this week’s cycle of events surrounding the Iranian nuclear weapons program is nothing more than a microcosm of the whirlwind cycle that has repeated relentlessly over the past three years.

The song remains the same. The Iranian Nuclear Re-Mix version.

November 21, 2005

Missing Zarqawi

KUWAIT CITY:  The rumors of the demise of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al Qaeda’s commander in Iraq, appear to be untrue. Zelmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, squelches the early reports of his death; “I do not believe that we got him. But his days are numbered. We’re closer to that goal but unfortunately we didn’t get him in Mosul.”

U.S. Intelligence officials believe they “just missed” Zarqawi. DNA testing is being conducted to ensure the identity of those killed. According to Brig. Gen. Said Ahmed al-Jubouri, Mosul’s Chief of Police, the raid on the safe house was spurred on by a tip from a neighbor.

While Coalition forces continue the hunt for Zarqawi and other high profile leaders, facilitators and technicians, there is a debate over the effectiveness of the Coalition’s intelligence gathering capabilities.  The Washington Post reports that there are an increased amount of tips from “Iraqis unhappy with Zarqawi and his operation, These tend to be traditional Iraqi leaders — sheiks and imams — upset with the organization, especially its recent execution of Sunni Arabs in Ramadi.”

The Los Angeles Times characterizes the hunt for Zarqawi as a “failure” and states “Iraq’s Insurgency Mastermind Stays a Step Ahead of U.S… because his network has a much better intelligence-gathering operation than they do.” The article postulates the Iraqi people are unwilling to cooperate with Coalition efforts out of fear of retribution, but then gives examples of Coalition successes in dismantling Zarqawi’s network:

The chart identified seven “Tier 1” operatives, or those defined as having direct ties to Zarqawi, including Abu Azzam, described as the “emir of Iraq”; Abu Abdallah, a military leader in Ramadi; Abu Umer a-Kurdi, considered a master builder of homemade bombs in Baghdad; and leaders of Zarqawi’s organization in Mosul and Haditha and western Al Anbar province.
It also listed 38 “Tier 2” operatives killed or captured and 71 in “Tier 3,” many of them Iraqi and foreign fighters or leaders of cells, Lynch said.

“Given [the] many, many sources of intelligence and information, we have great success at killing or capturing his leaders, his cell leaders, his coordinators and his lieutenants, and this chart just continues to expand, and eventually, he’s going to be on this chart,” Lynch said.

Coalition forces continue to work to dismantle al Qaeda’s network. Most recently, Abu Ibrahim was captured in Baghdad. He was “a technology expert, advisor and supplier to al Qaeda in Iraq terrorists and leaders in Baghdad… associated with the al Qaeda in Iraq Baghdad propaganda cell… He provided his expertise in the procurement of video equipment, video editing equipment, and computer programs.” Ibrahim will very likely have intimate knowledge of al Qaeda’s computing and communications capabilities.

The Telegraph reports on a joint SAS [British commandos] and U.S. Delta Force hit team tasked to hunt suicide bombers in Baghdad. According to the report, three suicide bombers with explosive vests were killed over the summer “acting on intelligence obtained by an Iraqi agent working for the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6).” There is a “network of Iraqi spies working for the CIA and MI6” which is feeding intelligence to Task Force Black.

While the hunt for Zarqawi continues, he will be forced to divert greater energies to protecting his safety. This may shield al Qaeda in Iraq’s leader, but the senior and middle management, as well as the rank& file of the organization has had no such protection.

November 20, 2005

Rumor and Combat

KUWAIT CITY: While Coalition forces press operations along the Euphrates River Valley, an interesting report emerges from the city of Mosul. During a shootout at a suspected al Qaeda safe house, eight terrorists either shot each other or blew themselves up to avoid capture. Unconfirmed reports indicate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al Qaeda’s commander in Iraq, may have been one of those killed. According to an unnamed U.S. counterterrorism official, “[t]here are efforts under way to determine if he was killed.”

In the past we’ve looked at potential successors to Zarqawi. Since this time, three known al Qaeda in Iraq “princes” have been confirmed killed (Suleiman Khalid Darwish and Abu Azzam) or captured (Abu Talha), and Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri is believed to have died as well. The death of Zarqawi would be an important psychological victory for the Coalition and a blow to al Qaeda, but, as Col Stephen Davis commented in the past, “[t]he reality is that while one day Zarqawi will die or will be captured and nothing much will change. We will continue to fight and kill the insurgents in [Western Anbar] with our focus being on dismantling the networks.”

And the dirty job of fighting the insurgency and dismantling the jihadi networks continues. In Haditha, a roadside bomb attack killed fifteen Iraqi civilians and one U.S. Marine. An ambush followed the bombing, and Iraqi Army soldiers and Marines beat off the attack and killed eight insurgents and wounded another.

Fresh on the heals of Operation Panther, a combined Coalition force of 150 Iraqi Army soldiers and 300 Marines launched Operation Bruins in northern Ramadi. Multinational Forces-West describes the operation as “part of a series of disruption operations in Ramadi and is designed to set the conditions for successful elections in December. The forces are conducting cordon and searches, blocking off known insurgent escape routes and searching for weapons caches.” In Ramadi: North, South, East and West, and Operation Panther, we stated “the Coalition is attempting to address the Ramadi problem by slowing bringing in Iraqi troops and pairing them off with U.S. units, and trying to avert a full scale operation like the one conducted in Tal Afar… the small scale offensives in Ramadi… are designed to target specific neighborhoods as well as outlying areas of the city…”

Multinational Forces-West reports “Attacks against Iraqi and U.S. Forces in the Ramadi area have decreased 60 percent in the last few weeks, as a result of these ongoing operations.” One such insurgent attack in downtown Ramadi had disastrous results; thirty two insurgents were killed by U.S. And Iraqi troops.

The Coalition is slowly and methodically strangling the insurgency and al Qaeda in northern and western Iraq, and persistent operations are denying al Qaeda safe havens in their former self-declared “Islamic Republics” on the Syrian border. The death of Zarqawi, if true, should be credited to the persistent pressure applied by Coalition forces, and the introduction of Iraqi troops into the northern and western regions of Iraq.

November 18, 2005

Operation Steel Curtain

The Coalition task force assigned to clear and hold the western most run of the Euphrates River has had little rest since Operation Steel Curtain began at the beginning of November. The towns of Husaybah, Karabilah, and Ubaydi have been cleared and a permanent Iraqi and U.S. presence has left behind to prevent the return of the foreign fighters and insurgents as well as establish public services for the local residents, in many cases where no services existed.

As the Multinational Forces West press releases clearly states - “Operation Steel Curtain continues” - and the town of Rammanah is now the current focus of this operation. MNF-West describes Rammanah as “a rural, agricultural region with dozens of small villages.” There has been no enemy response to the sweep though the town, and seven al Qaeda terrorists were captured detained after members the local Desert Protector Force provide positive identification.

Western IraqThe parliamentary elections are less than a month away, and Coalition forces are pressing hard on operations along the border. al-Qaeda’s response is predictable, with suicide attacks on two mosques in the Kurdish town of Khanaqin, a town 87 miles northeast of Baghdad, as well as a multiple car bomb attack on a hotel that houses foreign journalists.

As al-Qaeda’s forces are decimated on the Syrian border and along the Euphrates, their need to remain relevant intensifies. But al-Qaeda’s attacks have failed to cause the long desired sectarian Sunni-Shiite-Kurd civil war, derail the political process or halt the elections. Their violence is seen as senseless by many Iraqis, even by many members of the domestic wing of the Iraqi insurgency.

Iran's Nuclear Hand

Since taking office as President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made some bold moves accompanied by even bolder rhetoric, especially regarding Iran’s nuclear program. It appears that even Russia is beginning to tire of Iran’s bold new president. It appears that a frustrated Russia is shifting to the American/European position on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The effects of a swaying Russia, builders of several of Iran’s nuclear reactors and currently under contract with Tehran, would be profound in the international arena.

But increasing frustration in Moscow could swing the Russians closer to the U.S.-European position and indirectly pressure Beijing to also join the mainstream and moderate its opposition to Security Council action, one diplomat said. He, like others talking to The Associated Press, demanded anonymity in exchange for divulging confidential information.
Russia has played an increasingly important role in getting Iran back to negotiations meant to pressure Tehran to compromise on its plans for uranium enrichment. The Americans and Europeans recently agreed to give up their demand that Iran renounce enrichment and related activities and endorsed a plan that would allow Iran to convert uranium but move the enrichment process to Russia. [Emphasis added]

It is surely no coincidence that the news of Russia’s new-found displeasure with their largest nuclear contracting agent comes alongside a visit by President Bush with leaders of both Russia and China at the APEC Summit in South Korea. Russia coming on board (and surely not without unrelated diplomatic ‘sweetners’) puts pressure on China to go it alone in any veto of UN Security Council sanctions on Iran for non-compliance with the IAEA. China may not be willing to go that route.

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