Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

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August 30, 2002

Observations on the Persistence of the Present Unpleasantness in the Middle East

Something’s happening in the Middle East, and it’s not just the waiting for the US to attack Iraq, although many things swirl around that. Many players are taking steps to secure their positions.*

By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS. There are, as always, many strands to events in the Middle East. Indeed, it is a region so complex, varigated and subtle that it is impossible to talk about it in sweeping terms, other than for the fact that as a geopolitical region it has a certain continuity deriving from its contiguity. But there are strands of action underway in the region which appear to be moving toward a coalescing which will be strategically relevant, and soon.

Several major factors are critical, although there are many other relevant strands which are also important. But, given the context of the US-led “war on terror” and the implication that the US would take this war to include an attempt to remove Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein, the main considerations should include:

Various aspects of these points, and others, have been discussed extensively in this journal, but there are some interesting new aspects which bear scrutiny.

Saddam’s Maneuvering

Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein recognizes clearly the prospect that the US will strike at him militarily in the near future. It is clearly in his interest that the US attack before the November 2002 US Congressional elections which would ensure, possibly, that the US would not undertake a comprehensive war, but would, rather, engage in limited air strikes and possibly some special forces insertions designed as much for US public consumption as for war-winning.

Should the US undertake such an action, it could mean that it would actually lose international momentum in the “war on terror” and thus be unable to re-mount a later, more comprehensive and effective total war against Iraq.

Equally, Saddam Hussein is clearly aware that Israel would not hesitate to respond with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) should Iraq attempt any strategic-level attacks (with WMD) against Israel. The presence of US forces inside Iraq — as part of the US war — would make it virtually impossible for Israel to respond with nuclear weapons against Iraq should Iraq launch its own WMD attack on Israel after US forces have landed. Moreover, Saddam has taken steps to help ensure that the US war against Iraq immediately becomes a new, broader Arab-Israeli conflict once combat is initiated.

Highly-reliable, high-level sources close to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasir Arafat confirmed to Defense & Foreign Affairs that the killing of high-profile terrorist leader Abu Nidal (Sabri al-Banna) in his Baghdad, Iraq, apartment was intended — and was taken very literally — as a direct warning from Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein to PA leader Arafat to resume the war against Israel with full vigor or face the same consequences as Abu Nidal.

Moves authorized by Chairman Arafat to re-escalate the intifada against Israel began almost immediately the message came through. A number of incidents occurred against Israeli targets on August 20, 2002. As much as anything, the move indicates that Arafat and the Palestinian intifada and war were now firmly in the hands of Iraqi Pres. Saddam.

Indeed, Saddam has now been forced to take the initiative in the conflict with the US. Iraq’s sources of discretionary funds are dwindling,3 while costs have mounted almost exponentially as the Saddam Administration moves as rapidly as possible to acquire spare parts for its main military systems, along with new systems, such as its Kolchuga early-warning radars,4 acquired in the past year from Ukraine.

Abu Nidal (a nom de guerre which meant “father of the struggle”) was allegedly found dead in his apartment on August 20, 2002, having been dead for “several days” [a Palestinian newspaper al-Ayyam, said he had been dead for three days]. Western media, based on initial translations of the first leaks of the news, said that the death was an “apparent suicide”. The August 20, 2002, Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily questioned that initial report, and on August 20, 2002, Defense & Foreign Affairs was able to obtain the original Arabic text which does not translate as “suicide”, but as a “self-caused” death; in other words, a death brought on by the victim himself. And given the later detail that Abu Nidal died of multiple gunshot wounds, it was apparent that his death was not a suicide.

The “self-caused” death meant that Abu Nidal had brought his own death on himself by going against Pres. Saddam. However, there seemed little evidence that Abu Nidal had, in fact, done anything specific against Saddam, but rather was used to demonstrate that no matter how high-profile a revolutionary icon he was, Saddam could kill him at will. In fact, it was clear that Abu Nidal did know a lot about the Iraqi connection with terrorist groups, almost certainly including al-Qaida. However, it was equally clear that he was not going anywhere: he was confined to a wheelchair and was suffering from cancer.

What was also significant was the fact that the first news of the death emerged through Ramallah, Chairman Arafat’s headquarters city.

That fact that, on August 20, 2002, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz confirmed in Baghdad to foreign journalists in English the reports that Abu Nidal had committed suicide indicated clearly that the “message” of Abu Nidal’s murder was an “internal” message, meant to warn Pres. Arafat and his team not to be tempted by Western pressures to move toward a peaceful settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute.  

A top Iraqi official told CNN television earlier that Abu Nidal committed suicide in Baghdad after being confronted with evidence of his involvement in a plot with Kuwait to overthrow the Saddam Government in Iraq. Defense & Foreign Affairs sources close to the situation said that this was highly implausible, given Abu Nidal’s health.

It is known that Abu Nidal/Sabri al-Banna had been suffering for some time from cancer. He was seen by Western intelligence officers alive and ill in Cairo in 1998, when he was receiving medical treatment. After considerable pressure, the Egyptian Government forced him to leave Cairo for Iraq. At first, however, the Egyptian Government put out a cover story that he had died, but when Western intelligence sources discovered otherwise, the Egyptian Government was forced to expel him from the country. Abu Nidal’s death has, in fact, been announced several times. Defense & Foreign Affairs sources said that the latest report seemed almost certainly to have been correct.

The fact that US Pres. George W. Bush called a meeting, in the middle of his vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, on August 20, 2002, of his senior national security personnel — including a rare meeting at which Vice-President Dick Cheney and the President would be together, something which had been avoided since September 11, 2002, for security reasons; along with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Advisor Dr Condoleezza Rice, and others — was also significant. The cover story that the gathering was to discuss defense planning was implausible: only a crisis of the magnitude of the impending attack on Iraq and/or the relative stalemate in the conflict in Afghanistan could cause such an unusual meeting.

No details were leaked to the US Congress, nor were any Congressional national security figures invited to the Crawford gathering. It seemed likely that the White House team was gathering to formulate a united position, probably on Afghanistan and Iraq, before meeting with Congressional leaders. The White House had said that it would not attack Iraq before the November US Congressional elections, but there was now growing momentum to do something before that time, probably in October 2002. There was, however, still concern that there was an insufficiently credible alternate government ready to take over from Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist Administration in Baghdad, despite attempts to promote the idea of a restoration of the Hashemite constitutional monarchy under Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein, head of the Constitutional Monarchy Movement, or with Sharif Ali’s colleague, Shi’ite opposition leader Ahmed Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi National Congress (INC).

Two Palestinians and an Israeli soldier were killed in separate incidents on August 20, 2002, as the Israeli Army continued its sweep for wanted militants while kicking off in Bethlehem a plan to withdraw from some reoccupied areas. Israeli troops raided Tulkarem refugee camp in the northern West Bank, sparking clashes in which one Palestinian militant was killed and at least three other people were wounded. Issam Jayusi, 27, a member of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed offshoot of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat’s Fatah, was killed in one exchange.

What are some of the conclusions which can be drawn from this?

1. The Arab-Israeli conflict is set to escalate. The Arab-Israeli conflict was likely to escalate significantly, almost immediately, based on the fact that Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein had credibly warned Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat that he would suffer the same fate as the murdered Abu Nidal if he did not reignite the intifada. There were signs that of an immediate revival in attacks on Israelis on August 20, 2002, following a brief period of apparent growing cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian officials.

2. Iraq is attempting to ensure that a US attack will mean a broader Arab-Israeli, or Arab versus West war. Iraq, which has significant numbers of special forces personnel in the PA territory, was now the driving force in continuing the Arab-Israeli conflict, and was unlikely to back off this position in the near future, almost certainly as a move to create a broader war in the event of a US-initiated war against Iraq. Just as the US has been attempting to build a consensus among its allies regarding the attack on Iraq, so Iraq has been seeking to bring its own assets and allies into line for the impending conflict. 

3. Jockeying for initiative. Pres. Saddam has attempted to regain the initiative in the conflict with the US, and because of financial pressures must now move to bring matters to a head. Forcing the US to act prematurely could be a consideration in Baghdad, on the basis that a premature US military initiative would fail in its objectives and would then wind down before the US November 2002 Congressional elections, leaving Iraq in a stronger position and the Bush Administration unable to mount a follow-on campaign. 

The Egyptian Maneuvers

Has Egyptian Pres. Hosni Mubarak decided that Egypt can no longer rely on the strategic doctrine which had served it well for more than a quarter-century, the doctrine of ironclad defense of the Egyptian homeland? There is evidence that he has considered, and is experimenting with, a return to an offensive capability, similar to that adopted in the 1967-1973 period by former Pres. Anwar as-Sadat, in order to achieve the then-vital goal of recovering the Suez Canal and the Sinai from Israeli control.

The goal today, apparently, would be to ensure that Egypt could pre-emptively blunt a new Israeli attack — in the event that a wider Arab-Israeli war occurs — by moving offensively out from its tightly-constructed, highly-layered defensive shell.

Analysis of the Egyptian Armed Forces’ Exercise Tahrir (Liberation) in August 2002 has convinced intelligence and policy officials in the US and Israel that the Egyptian Mubarak Administration is now moving rapidly to position itself for possible involvement in a new war with Israel. Although the preparations may be designed to prepare for an unwanted involvement in a broader Israel-Palestine conflict, the approach taken by Egypt was instructive.

The Egyptian Government, which did not publicize the exercises, said that they were designed to assist junior officers in becoming familiar with doctrine and command, but the scale and nature of the exercises belied that.

The exercise demonstrated the introduction of a strategically-significant new military doctrine which now placed the emphasis on deep offensive operations, rather than on defensive protection of the Egyptian territory against an aggressor.5

1. Exercise Tahrir was not a multi-national undertaking, and the Egyptian Ministry of Defense did not notify its allies, such as the US, of the exercise in advance in a way which would indicate the openness which accompanies other major Egyptian military exercises;

2. The codename used for the exercise was Tahrir (Liberation), which was the name given to the exercises before the October 1973 War. It was clear that the codename had a special significance, given that the Tahrir exercises during the Sadat era were the preparatory steps for the Egyptian attacks to re-take the Suez Canal and Sinai. The August 2002 Exercise Tahrir also took place in the same area of the pre-1973 exercises, an area — south-west of the Suez Canal — which has topography similar to that of the northern Sinai facing Israel.

3. Exercise Tahrir was at division level, far in excess of its stated objective of nurturing junior officers.

4. The exercise was apparently directly commanded — or at least overseen — by the Minister of Defense & Military Production, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, rather than one of the Field Army commanders, or by the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, Lt.-Gen. Hamdy Moustafa Weheba, or the Chief of the Military Operations Authority, Maj.-Gen. Saad Hassan Abu Rida. Operations Authority is the principal Ground Force command body, although theater commanders (of Field Armies, or Military Regions) would normally be expected to have greater direct oversight of a division-sized exercise. It was believed, as a result, that elements of several Ground Force divisions were involved, and possibly from both the Second and Third Field Armies, the two principal deployed operational formations.

5. The entire Egyptian military command attended the maneuvers.

6. The maneuvers, which employed armor, mechanized infantry formations, and artillery, were supported by helicopter gunships and fixed-wing close air support. Egyptian sources said that they were designed as “deep penetration” operations. The structure and shape of the exercises were that they were not geared to fighting an adversary such as Egypt or Sudan, but were clearly designed to address a high-caliber, modern force, such as Israel.

Egyptian forces are now among the best-trained in the Middle East, in terms of large-scale exercises, working up with major Western-style forces on a regular basis with the bi-annual Bright Star maneuvers, which involve the US and other regional and European forces; and with the May 2002 Pyramid 2002 exercises which were conducted bilaterally with Italian forces. Significantly, the Egyptian Government censored all reporting in Egypt of Pyramid 2002, in which the Egyptian Army conducted live-fire exercises of an extensive nature with the Italian Pinerolo Armored Brigade for almost a month in the Western Desert, south-west of Alexandria. The Pyramid 2002 exercises took two years to organize, and while they added to the sophistication of Egyptian military operations, they were almost certainly not geared specifically at Israel. Nonetheless, Israel is, for all Egyptian military planners, the prototypical adversary against which they plan, largely because of historical experience and because it is the most sophisticated military power in the region.

Significantly, the Cairo Times of October 30, 1997, had a portion of an article on the then-current Bright Star maneuvers censored before publication in which it noted:

Just before Bright Star, Egypt staged a somewhat different kind of exercise. The Third Army launched an attack along both sides of the Suez Canal — an armored punch against an entrenched enemy. This enemy, the communiqué said, was assumed to have electronic and air superiority. And when you talk about going up against a foe with these capabilities, it’s obvious you aren’t talking about Sudan, Libya, Iraq, or any other country in the Arab world.”

Another portion of that article censored by Egyptian authorities noted, about the prospect of Egypt joining a war against Israel at that time:

... [I]f [then Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu starts a war with Syria, then Egypt might feel it has no choice. In this case, Egypt would have three options: launch ballistic missiles and risk a devastating counterstrike, stage a long-term naval blockade in the central Mediterranean and risk breaking international law, or send its men into the Sinai, into the teeth of the Israeli Defense Forces. In the last case, it’s conceivable that the Egyptian air force could hold off the Israeli air force for a few days, but the army still needs to show that its ground forces can inflict blows upon the enemy.”

The basic interpretation of the Egyptian maneuvers is as follows:

(i) The Egyptian Government has taken an extremely urgent, expensive and symbolically-important approach to getting the Armed Forces up to speed to be ready for an imminent conflict with Israel. The fact that the exercise was, once again, Codenamed Tahrir indicates that the Mubarak Government feels that it is preparing to intervene against Israel to, presumably, liberate the Palestinians. This, along with all of the other symbolism of the exercise, indicates that if a conflict is entered with Israel, it would be done with full national weight. The Egyptian Government is, in essence, putting its prestige on the line by reviving Tahrir, and in reviving the same historic symbolism of using the same exercise area as pre-1973. Moreover, it has put the highest level of command imprimatur on the exercises.

(ii) The Egyptian Government cannot have failed to anticipate that the US and Israel would not the significance of the exercises. It is possible that Pres. Mubarak feels he is beyond the point of having to consider US feelings on the matter.

(iii) Exercise Tahrir was clearly not meant as a message to be broadcast abroad, but rather to ensure the preparedness of its own forces, hence the symbolism of the name and location. It seems likely that it was intended to verify combined arms doctrine at the level of large formations and within a context which could be meaningful at full Army corps level. Significantly, the exercise was meant to demonstrate deep penetration offensive operations, something which the Egyptian Armed Forces have not done since the October 1973 War. Quite the contrary, the Egyptian Armed Forces’ strategic doctrine has been, since 1973, to defend Egypt’s territorial integrity, and to pointedly avoid the provocative symbolism of having an offensive capability beyond Egypt’s borders.

The Developing War

Warthat is, a new, major war between a coalition of Muslim groups and states and Israel — has been in serious development for several years. It would be a mistake to characterize the current developments as stemming from either the September 11, 2002, terrorist attacks on the US, or even any new steps taken before or after that by the US Administration of Pres. George W. Bush. Defense & Foreign Affairs outlined this trend in very specific terms during in 2000, for example.6

The current activities underway — in the US and Middle East — are linear progressions of what has been long in the making. It seems likely, however, that a major US attack on Iraq will force a dénoeument. This new conflict, so long in the making, will be global in consequence, and states which now feel that they can “opt out” of involvement are mistaken. All will be drawn in.


* Some portions of this report have appeared in earlier editions of Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily. The objective of this report was to bring together some key elements to highlight the overall picture.

1. See Turkey’s Crisis: Its Impact on the US Plans for Iraq, on the European Union, Libya and Everything, by Gregory R. Copley, Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, 6-7, 2002.

2. See Time to End the Hypocrisy Over Qadhafi, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, 6-7, 2002.

3. See, for example, The Washington Post, of August 20, 2002, in a report entitled US Companies Slash Imports Of Iraqi Oil, which notes: “US oil companies have dramatically slashed imports of Iraqi oil over the past five months, contributing to a steep decline in Baghdad's oil exports and cutting into President Saddam Hussein's ability to siphon money from the UN-supervised oil-for-food program, according to US and UN officials. The retreat by US oil companies from Iraq's oil market comes as the Bush administration is seeking to increase pressure on Hussein and weighing options for how to meet its goal of removing the Iraqi leader from power.”

4. See Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, April 22, 2002: Iraq, Seen as Potential Trigger for Wider Arab-Israeli War, Moves Carefully to Prepare Forces for Conflict; Iranian Leadership Also Moving Cautiously.

5. See, particularly, the Defense & Foreign Affairs Handbook on Egypt, 1995, by Gregory R. Copley. This book, which outlines in detail the fundamental philosophies of the Egyptian doctrine of territorial defense, abandoning the doctrine developed for the 1973 offensive operations to re-capture the Suez Canal and Sinai, was accepted by the Egyptian Armed Forces as an accurate representation of the national military doctrine and was translated into Arabic for use as a training manual at Egyptian military academies.

6. In Where Terrorism Is Going, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy of 10-2000, Senior Editor Yossef Bodansky said: “The coming surge of international terrorism will see the spread of populist Islamist terrorism throughout the major Muslim states and the launching of spectacular strikes of increasing ferocity and lethality in the West: the US and Western Europe, as well as Latin America and Australia.” The same edition carried another report by Bodansky entitled Indicators of the Coming Middle East War. The month before (edition 9-2000), Bodansky wrote a piece entitled Bin Laden, Syria and Iran’s New Israel Offensive. There were numerous other articles in the Defense & Foreign Affairs publications in the period before and after this.