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The Secret War By: Ralph Peters
The New York Post | Tuesday, April 08, 2003


As many as six Iraqi divisions barely fired a shot and evaded orders to attack allied forces. Chemical weapons still have not been used, despite Iraqi commanders receiving permission to employ them. Secret bunkers and executive hide-outs have been hit, with more success than the world yet knows.

Behind the precedent-setting advance to Baghdad, a secret war has long been underway. It began months - years - before the first precision strike initiated this conflict. And it is so complex and sensitive that many details will not be revealed in our lifetimes.

If you want to understand the risks this secret war has enabled our forces to run, just look at a map.

The sweeping attack by the Marines on the right of the allied advance leaves a long vulnerable flank. That flank faces the Iranian border - where Iraq's army has maintained heavy concentrations for over two decades. Some of the divisions positioned near Iran in the south resisted surrendering and had to be destroyed. But others, deeper inside Iraq, did not attempt to stage significant counterattacks.

A number of divisions scattered around Iraq simply remained inactive.

We hear a great deal about intelligence failure - but this war has seen remarkable intelligence successes. Even the appearance of Saddam's Fedayeen thugs in large numbers was no surprise to the intel community - the reports were available, but civilian decisionmakers in the Pentagon dismissed them.

From the CIA to special operations forces, our activities have been comprehensive and effective. Some missions are covert, meaning they can be revealed after the fact. Others are clandestine and will remain shrouded from public view. But both types have been strikingly successful.

American agents working with Iraqi intermediaries were able to cut deals with some division commanders (as well as making different deals with other Iraqi officers). Their units would not surrender outright - no white flags would go up - thus preserving their pride and maintaining a degree of unit integrity.

Just sitting there in place also gave officers' relatives some protection from Saddam's vengeance: By "delaying" their participation in the war, they remained a viable force that punitive actions by the regime would only alienate. Baghdad kept expecting those divisions to join the fight.

This inactivity was not as dramatic as if the units had rallied to the coalition. But it was an intelligent compromise. And guess who will form the backbone of the armed forces of liberated Iraq? Many of the divisional cadres have melted away - deserted, at least for now - but those who remain will be crucial to building Iraq's future defense forces.

Regarding chemical weapons, a combination of psychological operations and quiet pressure on Iraqi commanders, along with ferocious attacks on delivery systems, has kept these munitions out of the war thus far. Reporters keep badgering briefers with questions as to why chemical weapons have not yet been found, but our commanders and troops are simply relieved that they have not been used.

Many Iraqi officers and officials have been sitting on the fence, waiting to see which way the war would go. Even that is a victory for our intelligence agents. If not openly supportive of our efforts, neither did these Iraqis seriously oppose them. They were neutralized, and their inaction helps explain the lethargy of the regime's attempts to respond to the allied advance.

With each new day, however, more Iraqis begin to cooperate. Even before the war, high-level contacts provided targeting information. Now the trickles of information are building toward flood-stage.

Local residents tell our forces where arms caches or Ba'ath Party strongholds are located. Captured officers reveal piece after piece of Saddam's defensive plans. And still more regime officials are quietly shifting to back the winning side as they maneuver to survive Saddam's fall.

Yet even these remarkable intelligence successes are minor compared to what lies ahead. Much has been written about the seismic effects this war will have on the cruel, moribund states and societies of the Middle East. And we are, indeed, rewriting the region's future.

But we will soon be able to rewrite its past, as well. Access to Iraqi intelligence archives and the interrogation of high-level prisoners will enable us to reconstruct the secret history of the Middle East over the past 35 years.

Certainly, we shall learn a great deal more about the atrocities of Saddam's regime. But the information of far greater value will be what we learn about the regime's relationships not only with other rogue states, but with our long-term "allies" in the Arab world and beyond.

The Iraqi regime was a bureaucracy of terror. But it was, above all, a bureaucracy. It kept voluminous files. The secret police, diplomatic and executive archives will hold information on all the region's secret deals, as well as on the private lives and personal corruption of virtually every leader, cabinet member and senior military officer throughout the Middle East.

Syria must be terrified of what we'll find. But Egypt is doubtless plenty worried, too. And the files on Saudi princes are not going to be publishable as family reading.

We are in for some shocks as we learn of unsuspected betrayals. But the states of the region will be in for much greater surprises in the coming years.

It has been noted that the French and Russians did not want this war because they knew we would learn how they cheated on U.N. sanctions against Iraq. But the treasure trove of information we will collect on the Arab world and other Islamic states will be much more important. It will enable us to see into previously opaque issues and to squeeze many a corrupt leader who believed he was safe from external scrutiny.

The Iraqi archives will be a mother lode of information for scholars. But there is much we will choose to keep under lock and key for strategic purposes. The psychological effects of our access to those archives and to former regime officials anxious to tell all will be even greater than the practical information we accumulate.

No Arab leader will know what was or wasn't in those files. Each will have to fear the worst. President-for-life X will always have to wonder what we know as we sit across the negotiating table.
 
Our immediate goal will be to help the Iraqi people build the first rule-of-law democracy in the Middle East. That will bring its own rewards. But the long-term dividends we will reap from our secret war will keep paying off for decades.

The destruction of Saddam's regime will result in the greatest intelligence coup in history.

Ralph Peters is a retired military intelligence officer and the author of "Beyond Terror: Strategy in a Changing World."


Ralph Peters is a New York Post Opinion columnist and the author of "Looking For Trouble: Adventures in a Broken World."


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