Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

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April 14, 2003

Threat of Emplaced WMD Detonation Not Yet Ruled Out in Iraq; Prospect of Attack on Israel Also Not Yet Totally Negated

Exclusive. Analysis. By Gregory R. Copley, GIS Editor. The threat continues to exist of the triggered explosion of some kind of mass weapon — possibly even including a nuclear weapon — in a major Iraqi city, with the greatest probability that it could occur in Baghdad. GIS analysts believe that the plans made by the Administration of Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein in the latter part of 2002 to come forward with a “surprise weapon” to use against advancing Coalition forces in Iraq were not yet to be considered infeasible or to have been overtaken by events.

As well, the possibility of an Iraqi strike against Israeli targets could equally not yet be seen to have been totally obviated by Coalition military successes against Iraqi forces inside Iraq. Iraqi strategic weapons assets remained outside the purview of Coalition forces by continuing to be based inside Syrian territory.

[See Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, March 31, 2003: Iraq Signifies Readiness to Engage Israel; Tests SSM Deployments in Western Desert.]

Iraqi officials had delivered messages to key Persian Gulf leaders during late October and early November 2002, attempting to coerce regional support in the face of a then-possible US-led military attack on Iraq. In these messages, Pres. Saddam had stated that Iraq would use a “surprise weapon” against Israel, reducing such a threat. Senior Arab officials who dealt with the Iraqi emissaries, as well as Arab leaders, considered these ultimatums to be very credible and serious.

[See Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, November 8, 2002: Iraqi War Planning and Strategy Show Detailed Preparations for a Geographically Wide and Multi-Layered Conflict.]

The November 8, 2002, report noted: 

With the confrontation with the US imminent, the Iraqis have developed two master contingency plans: 

That report continued:

Some time before mid-September 2002, an Iraqi brigadier-general at the General Staff warned Arab colleagues about Iraq’s military posture and preparations for the forthcoming war with the US and Israel. He noted “Iraq’s tremendous supply of surface-to-surface missile warheads” filled with weapons of mass destruction. “Inspection teams destroyed only a small number of them,” he gloated. Iraq’s ballistic missiles and warheads “are controlled by the Surface-to-Surface Missile Command based in al-Taji, north of  Baghdad,” the General explained. Since there was no effective Western or Israeli attempt to destroy Special Unit 223 since mid-July 2002, in mid-September 2002 Iraq activated and deployed all four missile units: Special Units 222, 223, 224, and 225. The General stated: “They are deployed in various locations in Iraq, permitting them to hit predetermined targets and carry out direct orders from Saddam himself.” This strategic effort is supervised and coordinated by Abd-al-Tawwab al-Mulla Huwaysh — Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Military Industrialization — who gets his instructions directly from Saddam Hussein in person.

The events of the night of March 27-28, 2003 — in which Iraqi Scud-level SSM forces moved out of safe-haven in Syria, back into Iraq, and set up and and tested firing positions against Israel — demonstrated that the Iraqi SSM forces had remained intact, along with the Iraqi WMD resources, out of the reach of Coalition forces. It also demonstrated that there was a sufficient coterie of Iraqi technicians capable of deploying and firing the systems at that time. Clearly, with each passing day, the levels of loyalty which could be commanded by Pres. Saddam are declining, as rank-and-file forces desert their posts and blend back into civil society in Iraq. 

Even this was foreseen by Pres. Saddam, who made his position “clear” when he delivered an Æsopean message to Iraqis and Islamists on Islamic New Year.

[See Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, March 11, 2003: Saddam Delivers Islamist Message to Prepare for His Possible Disappearance During Conflict.]

In the March 11, 2003, report by Senior GIS Analyst Yossef Bodansky, it was noted:

Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein, in his Islamic New Year message, appeared to set the stage for his “disappearance” at the onset of the anticipated US-led war against Iraq, by setting the message in a parallel with the Hejira of the Prophet.

On March 5, 2003, Saddam Hussein delivered a message to the Iraqi people on the advent of the Islamic New Year. Significantly, the speech was read on Iraqi TV and radio by an announcer, and not Saddam himself as has been customary for such speeches. His latest message was an Islamist speech of the kind Osama bin Laden would have delivered. Therefore, the key to understanding Saddam’s message is in the Islamic metaphors which Saddam used.

The timing and occasion of Pres. Saddam’s speech were not accidental. The Islamic New Year is celebrated on the anniversary (by lunar calendar) of Prophet Mohammed’s forced migration — the Hejira —  from Mecca to Medina. It was in Medina that Mohammed built his forces and consolidated his base, and then returned triumphantly to Mecca, thus starting the ascent of Islam.

In the first part of his March 5, 2003, message, Pres. Saddam delved on the relevance of the lessons to be learned from Mohammed's experience. He emphasized that present-day Iraqis “also feel the determination of early believers ... not to relinquish their faith” not only in word but also in action, for, like their historic predecessors, “they had rejected despotism and pruned the path of faith as their own course”. Mohammed’s original followers, Saddam declared, “fixed landmarks for all coming generation until faith and Islam have assumed their current status”. Saddam stressed that this legacy is “what early believers wished for us and aspired for so that we can be on the right infallible path, the path of faith with all the implying sincerity, zeal and the requirements of jihad”.

Saddam then went to great length articulating the lessons of Mohammed's Hejira. Prophet Mohammed and his followers “left behind their homes, families and possessions”. They were forced into leaving Mecca “haunted by the devil and tyranny”, which included the people of Mecca who had succumbed to “the influential tyrants and those who were driven away by their superiority in number”. Mohammed elected to migrate not only in order to save his followers, Saddam stressed, but primarily in order to “to establish a capital for true Muslims and a center for their faith”. He found this refuge in Medina.

In that same message on March 5, 2003, Pres. Saddam inextricably bound the Iraqi cause with the Palestinian cause.

There is no compelling reason why Saddam — having so clearly identified the course of the war, his need to go into hiding, and the need to link his actions with those of the Prophet Mohammed and Palestine — would have changed his action when all that he had foreseen had come to pass. Indeed, the clearly-foreseen Coalition short-term success literally adds to the prospect that Saddam Hussein would continue, with some urgency, to pursue the options open to him if he was to fulfill his own perception of his historic destiny, which was to be seen historically as a modern version of Salah ud-Din (Saladin), who successfully defeated the medieval Crusaders.

Given that background, Saddam’s options are strongly suggested to include, as a priority:

1. A major “spectacular” and cataclysmic event, inside Iraq, designed to make the Coalition’s task of reconstruction and control of the country as difficult as possible. Virtually the only option reliably available would be the detonation of a pre-emplaced weapon of mass destruction (WMD) device, and ideally a nuclear weapon but possibly another improvised device which would destroy the bulk of a major city, causing major casualties among the local and invading populace alike.

2. A major strike at Israel, using the Scud-level weapons currently still just inside Syrian territory. These weapons remain intact, and their deployment was tested, as noted above, on March 27-28, 2003.

The second option requires the active consent and possible support of Syria. The US military leadership has already acknowledged the Syrian involvement in supporting Iraq in the war, and in facilitating the exist of Iraqi leaders. The US was also aware of the March 27-28, 2003, SSM deployments. Australian, British and US special forces deployments in the Iraqi western desert — the Syrian Desert of Iraq’s al-Anbar region — have thus far succeeded in suppressing any strategic SSM firings against Israel. Nonetheless, if Saddam is to achieve the historic status he has sought, it would be necessary for him to attempt the Syrian-linked action against Israel.

In line with this, despite US warnings to the Syrian leadership, the Syrian Administration of Pres. Bashar al-Asad seems prepared to risk active engagement in the conflict, and this could signify a willingness to work with the remaining Iraqi SSM elements to start the war against Israel. Pres. Bashar has been constantly advised by his senior staff that it would be necessary for him to get into a war with Israel if he was to consolidate his control over Syria. Such a joint action with Iraq and Israel would possibly start such a war. However, this eventuality was also clearly foreseen by the US Bush Administration, which was why it took such strong efforts to utilize special forces units in the Iraqi west to prevent such firings, well outside the area of view of the “embedded journalists” who have been covering the rest of the war.

It is possible, then, that US/Coalition forces would engage the Iraqi SSM assets inside Syria, if there was evidence that they were on the move, back into Iraq, to start firings against Israel. This would significantly widen the scope of the conflict, actively embracing Syria. It was possible that the United Kingdom Government of Prime Minister Tony Blair would opt out of this phase of the war, given the ruling British Labour Party’s support for Syria and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasir Arafat, but the US and Australian special forces, backed by US and Australian airpower (the Royal Australian Air Force has a squadron of F/A-18 Hornet fighters in the conflict) would be able to handle the task, possibly preventing Saddam and Bashar from widening the war to include Israel.

At that point, the question of Iranian actions would arise. Already, the Iranian clerical leadership is sufficiently concerned about the rapid and clear Coalition military success that it has attempted to “muddy the waters” by assassinating a key Iraqi Shi’a cleric, Hojjat ol-Islam Abdul Majid al-Khoei, inside the famous and venerated Imam Ali Mosque in an-Najaf on April 10, 2003. 

[See Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, April 11, 2003: Leading Iraqi Hojjat ol-Islam Hacked to Death in Najaf, Reportedly by Iranian Agents.] 

Iran’s options now center — as they do for the Iranian client-state, Syria, as well as for Iraq — around widening the war to include Israel. Given any semblance of success — from a perceptional standpoint — by Iraqi and Syrian forces in widening the war by missile attacks on Israel, Iranian surrogate forces in Lebanon, the HizbAllah forces and those, possibly, of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC: Pasdaran) could well be tasked with initiating their own missile strikes against Israel.

The US willingness to expand the war to include Syria has now become evident from statements and attitudes ascribed to senior Bush Administration officials. However, it was not clear, as of April 13, 2003, that the Syrian leadership had “taken aboard” that prospect, possibly because of the belief that such an action would in some respects split the Coalition, because of the British ruling Labour Party’s ongoing friendship with the Bashar al-Asad Administration and the Palestinian cause. However, the movement of a Libyan Air Force Il-76 transport aircraft from Libya to Syria and return on April 9-10, 2003, has been noted with concern by Washington officials.

[See Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, April 11, 2003: Libyan Aircraft Collects “VIP Group” From Syria; Flies Back to Libya.]

GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily sources, who first noted the movement of the aircraft from Okba bin Nafa [formerly Wheelus Field], just outside of Tripoli, now report that the aircraft had gone to the main Damascus airfield in Syria to collect the Iraqi cargo of vehicles and people. 

Syria’s high level of complicity with Iraq in preparing for the current conflict with the US-led Coalition goes back, in direct physical terms, to the second half of 2002. GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily noted the movement of Iraqi WMD, laboratories, matériel, national treasures and gold reserves to Syria in a special report, Iraq Moves WMD Matériel to Syrian Safe-Havens, dated October 28, 2002. That report noted:

[T]he Iraqi Government and Armed Forces have moved substantial caches of chemical weapons and related materials to safe-havens across the border into Syria, to avoid any chance of discovery by United Nations (UN) inspectors. 

Iraq moved stockpiles of chemical weapons and nuclear matériel as well as key production machinery and key experts to the Hsishi compound near Kamishli [al-Qamishli], in Syria, along with strategic weapons, ammunition, military fuels and other defense matériel, gold reserves, national archival records and national art treasures. It is believed that the moves took place in late August and early September 2002.

It is also understood that some of the matériel, production machinery and experts moved into Hsishi compound were from the al-Qaim facility, which had been based near the H-3 base area in Western Iraq. The al-Qaim facility had been involved, before 1991, almost exclusively in uranium enrichment for nuclear weapons, but since it was reconstituted after the bombings of the 1991 Gulf War it was engaged in chemical and biological weapons development work, along with some nuclear-related activity. It is believed that some of the warhead materials for the chemical and biological weapons were at the al-Qaim facility, and that this is now in Hsishi.

The move reflects the earlier breakthroughs in strategic relations between Iraq and Syria, given the fact that Syria is strategically dependent on Iran, which has traditional rivalries and hostility with Iraq. The movement of Iraqi strategic combat matériel into Syria is the first tangible evidence of the accords which have been struck between Baghdad, Tehran and Damascus in the escalation of the war against Israel and the US. The evidence provided a pointed reminder to those US White House security policy officials who had decried suggestions by some other White House staffers that Iran could be persuaded to help the US in its war against Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein.

The evidence of long-term planning by Iraqi and Syrian officials for the way in which the current war has played out points to the fact that Saddam Hussein will, if at all possible, attempt to play the two large gestures open to him: the instigation of highly-symbolic attacks on Israel, and the creation of a massive catastrophe inside Iraq. If either or both of these were to be prosecuted with any degree of success — or success as perceived by the Arab “street” — he would then almost certainly begin the process of attempting a guerilla campaign of long duration inside Iraq. It remains to be seen whether he has missed his window to achieve either of these gestures.