BAGHDAD – Much of the world was surprised. After the spirited resistance in the south of Iraq, how could Baghdad possibly have fallen in only two days?

An Asia Times Online investigation in Baghdad, Tikrit and Najaf has yielded a clear certainty among Iraqis, both Sunni and Shi’ite, as to the answer: The Pentagon and the Ba’ath Party leadership made a safqua (“secret deal” in Arabic) for the (almost) bloodless fall of Baghdad. Crucially, this safqua may have included a package of American green cards for top Republican and Special Republican Guard commanders and their families.

“Shaku maku”? (“What’s new”?). “Makushi”? (No news). In the answer to this popular exchange in Baghdad slang, makushi has been replaced by safqua.

Mohammed al-Douri, the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations, was the one who pronounced the famous last words “the game is over” – referring to the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime. And a game it might well have been. (Al-Douri, according to al-Jazeera television, has enjoyed safe passage to Syria, and might even end up the UN ambassador of the new Iraqi government).

At the beginning of last week, a congregation of sheiks clad in dazzling black linen robes was camped in the lobby of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad. They were once again seeking an appointment with Mohammed Mohsen al-Zubaidi, the self-anointed governor of Baghdad (now demoted by the Americans).

The sheiks wanted to talk about their main priority: security. They wanted cooperation with the US Marines, but most of all they needed medicine for their hospitals and all the help they could get to “rebuild our country.” Sheik Altai was among the participants. An affable and subtle man, he was a political prisoner of Saddam’s regime from 1995 to 2002 in a Baghdad jail. He commands the allegiance of about 70,000 people. And as an important tribal leader, he ultimately ended up being courted by Saddam himself.

From a long conversation with the sheik, observations from a Ba’ath Party official who calls himself Ali and now lives in discreet civilian garb in a nondescript house in the Karada district, former Ba’ath Party officials laying low in Tikrit and top Shi’ite clerics in Najaf, it’s possible to reconstitute how the “fall” of Baghdad was staged.

No one will know what really happened in this war until a number of crucial questions are answered. And Iraqis are not expecting these answers to be spelled out by the Americans.

  • How did American forces manage to storm into and take over Baghdad with practically no resistance? In Basra, which is much smaller and which was relatively lightly defended, there was no pro-Anglo-American uprising, and the city took three weeks to be subdued.
  • What happened to the 20,000-strong, well-equipped Special Republican Guards, charged with the defense of Baghdad? Where did they melt away to?
  • How come there was no coordination between the Ba’ath Party-Republican Guard defense of Baghdad and the jihadis who poured in from Syria, Algeria, Yemen and Egypt to help?
  • How come the Republican and Special Republican Guards did not destroy a single bridge in Baghdad – an effective tactic to delay the American invasion?
  • How did the entire Iraqi cabinet manage to escape? This includes Saddam and his sons, Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, Dr. A K Hashimi (Saddam’s personal adviser), the ministers of defense, economy, trade and health and the unforgettable, insult-laden Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf of the information ministry.
  • Similarly, how did the vast majority of the Ba’ath Party leadership and the Republican Guard evade capture or surrender?
  • What happened to the infrastructure of the regime – the bulk of the estimated 500,000 elite?
  • What has happened to Saddam? Is he still in Iraq, in Taramiya, not far from Tikrit, or in Mecca, as per wild speculation in the Arab world?
  • Why were the oil fields in northern and southern Iraq not set on fire – a tactic already used by Saddam in Kuwait in 1991?
  • Where are Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction – the official reason for the war?

Iraqi sheiks confirm that Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah – who enjoys excellent relations with the Bush family – had been working tirelessly for months for a political solution to the Iraqi crisis. If Saddam is in Mecca, the architect would surely have been Prince Abdullah. His rationale always was to prevent by any means a long, bloody guerrilla war in Iraq which would turn the whole Middle East into a volcano. The Bush administration rationale was to grab a chance to engineer an allegedly quick post-Saddam stabilization process and so create a shortcut to the much-talked-about but yet-unpublicized roadmap supposed to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

At  the beginning of the war, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in his Pentagon briefings highlighted the constant flow of “communications” between the Americans and Republican Guard commanders. But Iraqis are now saying that the most important set of secret channels was between Republican Guard commanders and commanders of the Fedayeen of Saddam. This channel completely bypassed Saddam and his son Qusay – the de facto commander of the defense of Baghdad.

The whole issue was about survival, considering that the regime’s demise, confronted by overwhelming American power, was inevitable. At least two Republican Guard divisions plus the well-trained, well-fed, well-armed Special Republican Guard could have raised hell against the Americans in the defense of Baghdad. The Palestinization of Iraq, coupled with a jihad fought like a guerrilla war, could have lasted months, if not years. So as the Americans approached Baghdad they came up with an offer selected Iraqis could not refuse.

So the story goes that a reward package for the “peaceful” handover of Baghdad was offered to Republican Guard commanders and, later on, the Fedayeen of Saddam. Republican Guard commanders received a lot of cash, a “secure” relocation outside of Iraq, and crucially for those not considered war criminals, the promise of a new job in post-Saddam Iraq. After all, the new American government will need cadres to run the remains of the devastated state apparatus. Top commanders were offered the option of residency in the US, for themselves and their families, and most of all the chance to play a relatively prominent role linked to some factions of the Iraqi opposition – basically the Iraqi National Congress (INC) led by the Pentagon’s pet Iraqi, Ahmad Chalabi.

The story also goes that although there were less than 50 human shields in Baghdad when the war started, many had been coming and going since February. The role played by some was not that of a completely innocent bystander: they were Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agents. These agents, equipped with sophisticated micro-communication devices, were in fact the only American “human intelligence” on the ground in Baghdad. They worked as a kind of carrier pigeon in meetings with key Republican Guard commanders.

Saddam and his son Qusay seem to have been totally out of this loop. It’s certainly difficult to conceive that Ba’ath Party officials could not or did not do enough to detect the spies among the human shields placed in factories and water and power plants. In most of these installations, there were underground bunkers with a dizzying array of weapons – enough to fuel a guerrilla war for years. It’s an open secret in Baghdad that these weapons were later duly discovered by the Marines as they took control of the capital.

The CIA human shields updated and guided the American forces to the bombing of key regime installations, and to selected places where Saddam and the Ba’ath Party leadership would meet: thus the origin of the information that led to the “decapitation strike” with four 900 kilogram bombs in the Mansur district on April 8, the first night of the war. Saddam survived. But 14 civilians were killed – members of two Christian families, mostly women and children. Asia Times Online has been to the site twice: for Baghdadis, it’s an unofficial shrine to the horrors of this war.

As the Americans bribed the resistance, the order not to resist started streaming from the top commanders down. Republican Guard commanders told the rank-and-file that the resistance would be secret and long-term, according to Saddam and Qusay’s long-elaborated scenario of a guerrilla war. The “fall” of Saddam International Airport was the first part of the deal. Another open secret in Baghdad were the famous tunnels linking the main Republican palace of Saddam to the airport. Republican Guard commanders tipped off the Marines, and the tunnels were immediately seized.

Proof that Saddam and top Ba’ath Party officials were out of the handover loop was the promise by Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, in one of his briefings, that the media should expect an “unusual” Iraqi counter-attack to retake the airport. Many thought about chemical and biological warfare, when in fact the plan was to send Special Republican Guards through the tunnels to take the Americans by surprise. The surprise went the other way.

When the American Abrams tanks arrived close to the Palestine Hotel – Baghdad’s international media headquarters – the “game” was practically over. The Republican Guard commanders were about to be airlifted out of Iraq, and their soldiers had orders to demobilize and melt into the civilian population. Independent media had to be intimidated, silenced or corralled – and that’s why the al-Jazeera office and the Abu Dhabi TV office were hit, as well as the Palestine Hotel itself. The deliberate communications and power black out of Baghdad fit into the pattern: the Pentagon and the Republican Guard had to be dancing together in the dark.

The commander of the Fedayeen of Saddam had heard about the American offer to the Republican Guard elite officers. He realized that his own best interests were to get his own piece of the action. He got it. The Fedayeen were instantly beheaded, and were left to roam helplessly around Baghdad and finally dissolve into the civilian population. Game over.

Baghdad now can watch satellite TV in the streets. The communication blackout is slowly being lifted. Away from the American media spin, the same theme is being replayed over and over again in Iraq, from Sunni neo-entrepreneurs to Shi’ite clerics, from last week’s unprecedented street demonstration after jumma (Friday) prayers at the Abu Hanifa mosque to the emotional convulsion of the Shi’ite celebrations in Karbala: the Americans want Iraq’s oil, and the guerrilla war will start sooner or later.

George W Bush solemnly promised that war criminals would be brought to trial in Iraq. There are around 60 secret police headquarters in Baghdad. They are all empty. The giant Mukhabarat complex – the secret services’ pleasure dome, thoroughly bombed by the Americans – is empty. When one goes to these places, still loaded with shredded, burned or partially readable documents, only reporters are to be found: not a single American forensic specialist. War criminals of lower rank – Saddam’s invisible professional torturers, the so-called “B” list of the Ba’ath Party – are not being pursued. Iraqis openly say that most of these people are now seeking to work for the new occupying power: all smiles in their newfound, nondescript, civilian clothes, they were to be found starting from 9am every day outside the Palestine Hotel, trying to get a job with the Marines’ Civil Affairs Unit. In an effort to disclose names and responsibilities in a giant, totalitarian police state, every bit of information is helpful. The Americans are not even trying to make an effort.

So all these unanswered questions keep resurfacing in Baghdad. Like the mysterious “fires” in dozens of ministries, in fact all of them except the Ministry of Oil and the Ministry of Interior. The top floor of the Ministry of Information – a mine of information, in fact – was on fire in the middle of last week. Marines on site were patrolling the streets. The Ministry of Education was on fire by the end of last week: Marines in the Palestine Hotel asked this correspondent, “What city is that?”

Few in Baghdad believe these recurrent fires were provoked by the “remnants of Saddam’s regime” – as goes the official Washington line. They don’t know for sure for whom the arsonists are working. But they are asking themselves three questions. Who profits from the destruction of the whole infrastructure of the Iraqi state? Who profits from the destruction of Iraq’s invaluable cultural wealth? And why are Americans soldiers just blank-stared, gum-chewing spectators of all this pyromania?

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