The bombings at the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad Tuesday and at the Jordanian Embassy two weeks ago, the attacks against oil pipelines and the continued assaults on US and British soldiers, have demonstrated that Iraqi insurgents have graduated to more sophisticated weaponry and tactics in their guerrilla war against the Anglo-American coalition.
According to the Pentagon, the underground campaign has so far killed over 60 US soldiers and wounded hundreds more since President George W. Bush stood on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1 and declared the end of major combat operations. The attacks mark the beginning of a kind of warfare former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein planned long before the invasion. The tactics were finalized after he was tipped off in the first week of February about the timing of the coalition offensive.
Before the war, Saddam had asked Germany, via the former UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, Hans von Sponek, to open a direct channel to Washington. He said he was willing to reach an understanding on all outstanding issues, from weapons of mass destruction to a report on the future of Iraqi oil. Von Sponek had just resigned in protest against the decade-old sanctions. However, he continued regular visits to Baghdad and met with Saddam, before shuttling between New York, Berlin and Baghdad to try to stave off war.
During his last visit to Baghdad, Von Sponek, a personal friend, told me that German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was covertly sponsoring his diplomatic efforts. The following month, Saddam received from his intelligence services an evaluation saying Washington’s decision to topple the Baath regime was irreversible. The report quoted German intelligence, with whom the Iraqis had close contacts, saying the invasion would take place toward the end of March.
Saddam had been trying to establish a dialogue with Washington since the invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. In 1993, the former Iraqi leader asked me to transmit a message to the Clinton administration. In Washington, I contacted official and unofficial persons linked to the White House, among them a Pentagon expert on Iraq, Phoebe Marr, and former Under Secretary of State Joseph Cisco.
The thrust of the message was Saddam’s willingness to reach a comprehensive understanding with the US. It colorfully explained, "We cannot drink Iraqi oil," adding, "the United States has the world’s best capacity to develop Iraq’s massive natural resources." The response I received in Washington was: "We want the Iraqi body, but without the head." I conveyed the reply to Saddam Hussein’s half-brother Barzan, then Iraq?s ambassador to Switzerland.
From that time on, Saddam’s strategy was to gain time in the hope that international developments would blunt Washington’s aims. Simultaneously, he reorganized his military. Eight months before receiving the German intelligence evaluation on the certainty of war, Saddam issued a circular to senior Baath Party officials instructing them to be prepared for a US attack "at any moment." The July 2002 circular warned: "Iraq will be defeated militarily due to the imbalance in forces." The balance would be re-established by "dragging the US military into Iraqi cities, villages and the desert and resorting to resistance tactics."
Saddam Hussein had already been working for four years to adapt his military capacity to guerrilla warfare. In several private meetings he told me he thought Iraq’s military leadership was antiquated and needed fresh blood. He personally recruited leaders for new guerrilla units mostly under the age of 35, with some as young as 18. They assumed their posts soon after America’s "Desert Fox" bombing campaign in 1998. During my last visit to Baghdad in January 2003, I met with several officials, including Deputy Premier Tareq Aziz. He was certain war was imminent, adding a plan of resistance "was in the president’s mind."
Saddam established nationwide supplies of fighters, weapons and money before the invasion. Light weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades, explosives, hand grenades and AK-47s are abundant. Weapons and ammunition are manufactured in secret locations scattered throughout Iraq. Money is even more available than weaponry. Some of the immense wealth Saddam piled up by skimming oil revenues was invested abroad. Last year, he started liquidating his foreign assets to build a series of domestic cash mountains.
After the invasion, contacts were cut between the former president and most other high-ranking Baath officials. According to a member of the Aziz family, even Saddam?s personal bodyguards disappeared. Saddam abandoned his old companions, leaving them to face possible murder by angry Iraqis or arrest by US soldiers. Many of them surrendered to US troops before their vengeful countrymen could lay hands on them.
To put together the resistance, Saddam adopted the theory that it should blend Iraqi nationalist, Baathist and Islamic ingredients. The leaders were to be independent, yet linked to a general commander Saddam himself. He reverted to Islamic history for the basic structure of the resistance. The main inspiration came from the Hijra, when the Prophet Mohammed left Mecca for Medina, later returning in triumph to declare the complete victory of Islam.
After the fall of Baghdad in April, several party officials took refuge in other Arab countries. Their instructions were clear: disappear and wait. Their role was to serve as a link between the resistance in Iraq and the Arab masses in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Morocco and Mauritania, where Baath Party cells have existed since 1968.
The first of the three groups comprising Saddam’s faceless army is the Mujahideen. They include non-Baathist Iraqi and Islamic volunteers who fought in Afghanistan and Chechnya. Their only Baath Party members are non-Iraqi Arabs. Their numbers cannot be determined, although one clue came from Iraqi intelligence chief General Taher Jalil Habboush, whom I met in January. Habboush said about 6,000 Arab and Islamic fighters were in Baghdad at that time, most trained in guerrilla warfare.
The second element, Al-Ansar (the supporters), includes Baath Party fighters chosen personally by Saddam, who kept their involvement secret from the party?s "old guard." Al-Ansar members are present throughout Iraq. Communications between cells are primitive but safe. Written messages are prohibited, as is the use of radio or satellite telephones. Each cell has messengers whose task is to relay oral messages to other cells.
The third component, Al-Muhajirun (the emigrants), includes a few members of the established leadership and some Baath officials, including physicians, engineers and military strategists. They represent the core of a new regime Saddam hopes to lead after defeating the Anglo-American occupation.
Units inside all three of the resistance groups are both militarily and financially autonomous.
On April 8, 24 hours before the fall of Baghdad, Saddam summoned to Baghdad his cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as Chemical Ali, from his military post in Basra. As false reports circulated that Majid had been killed, he was meeting with Saddam in Baghdad’s Al-Aathamiyeh district. The meeting, like all similar gatherings, lasted between 10 and 15 minutes. Saddam charged his cousin with leading the new resistance should he be eliminated.
Former Vice-President Taha Yassin Ramadan, who was captured in Mosul on Tuesday, was assigned to command Al-Ansar because of his long experience with the Iraqi People’s Army. Saddam also appointed the former deputy commander in chief of the Iraqi armed forces, Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, overall commander of the Mujahideen. Duri, well connected with Islamist figures in the Arab and Muslim world, was responsible for Islamizing secular Iraqi society after 1992.
Saddam abandoned the rest of the former Baathist hierarchy, primarily due to their old age and because of their high-profile recognition.