Tikrit: The Last Stronghold
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GWEN IFILL: For more on the significance of U.S. Military advances on Tikrit, and Pres. Bush’s latest warning to Syria about harboring senior Iraqi officials, we get two views. We’re joined by one of our regular military analysts, retired army Colonel W. Patrick Lang. He’s a former Middle East analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency. And with him tonight is Judith Yaphe, who specialized in the Middle East for 20 years at the CIA. She’s now a senior research fellow at the National Defense University in Washington. Welcome. Colonel Lang what is the significance of what we have discovered in Tikrit?
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, I think it’s quite clear now that several days ago on the evening in which the massive strike took place to try and kill the maximum leader after that everything foal bits. I think that’s probably the best evidence we have that he is certainly effectively removed from the scene. So all of cohesive efforts of defense seem to have fallen apart after that. And the troops advancing on Tikrit are finding they have little pockets of this and that, a lot of people pulled out and gone away, left the equipment. Officers abandoned their men, Iraqi officers are particularly bad about that. I think you can say with great deal assurance that the war in terms of occupying Iraq and the regime is effectively over now. Now it’s a question of pacifying the country really.
GWEN IFILL: Miss Yaphe why was Tikrit such a critical stronghold for the U.S. to take?
JUDITH YAPHE: I think two reasons, first of all probably the last city area that hasn’t fallen under you know fallen to the war. But then there is the symbolic importance which is Tikrit and the area around it is not just Saddam Hussein’s home area but also that of most of the people in his regime that he relied on — the pillars of his regime. Most of the Republican Guard, the special Republican Guard bodyguard units came from there and most of the extended family had homes there. A palace and also a big military compound.
GWEN IFILL: Symbolically that’s the importance but militarily was it that important in the end?
JUDITH YAPHE: Well I will defer of course to my military friend here but yes, I think it is to us, to them it’s past — it was past military significance.
GWEN IFILL: Okay our military friend what do you think?
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, I think the war is essentially over as I said a few days ago. What we’re really doing nobody likes to say — mopping up anymore — when journalists can wander in and out of town just get shot at a few times you know there isn’t a serious defense to defend the place. Symbolically it’s great significance but there are other countries parts of the country people think Saddam Hussein wasn’t so bad. If you see the coverage up in Mosul, I mean, there are a lot of people in the Sunni majority who are not very happy with our presence.
GWEN IFILL: How about in Kirkuk where the oil fields were, was that important for different reasons, economic reasons?
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Yes, of course. I mean, it’s the center of oil activity in the north but as well it’s a very complex ethnic thing. There’s a substantial Turkmen population that the Turks in Turkey are interested in protecting as their ethnic brothers – there are a significant number of Sunni Muslims there as well, and there are a lot of Arabs brought in by Saddam to be to resettled there to push Kurds out of the way. Now they’re going away so this is something that has to be watched closely.
JUDITH YAPHE: Kirkuk was important because it was a flash point for us watching. If you were asked before the war started where were the flashpoints be – where we will have to fight the hardest or maybe have one of our most serious strategic problems, Kirkuk was top on the list because of the Kurds wanting to take over, because of the Turkmen wanting it back, because of the Arabs who were there and because of the Turks who were watching it.
GWEN IFILL: Are there other remaining pockets of resistance, likely pockets of resistance we should be watching for or is it pretty much freelance resistance at this point?
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: There seems to be a significant fight going over at al-Qaim where the Euphrates River crosses the border into Syria, and I would think if in fact regime figures are fleeing toward Syria as we’re being told, that this border town, which is substantial, would want to be held by adherence of the regime as long as possible as a kind of door into Syria. That’s significant and the situation in the south continues to evolve in directions which look rather worrisome for the future to me – obviously they have a lot of factual fighting going on and this could be a big deal in the future.
GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about the idea of Iraqi officials fleeing to Syria, Saddam Hussein hasn’t been definitively found we heard franks saying they had the DNA. So if they find evidence of remains they can prove it was him but there was some thought he was in Tikrit. Is that a big set back we haven’t found him yet?
JUDITH YAPHE: Not a setback. I’m not sure why we expected him to go there. I guess you expected there to be the final fight and battle that might have made sense but my guess is that would have been too obvious for him to go there and he would have known that. If he wasn’t killed in one of the bombings in Baghdad my guess is he very well could have gotten out. It’s interesting we haven’t seen for sometime going back a week or two before the collapse only see information minister Sahaf, you didn’t see any top leaders of the regime – there was no more Tariq Aziz, no more Ibrahim – or Ashrawi -and those three very senior people. You didn’t see anyone not even the foreign minister Naji Sabri, so where were they — had they have the left already making plans to do so it seems to me some that have may have been calculating before that last big attack on their escape routes.
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: I’ll tell you what you really don’t want to see happen is you don’t want to have a bunch of these cabinet ministers of the former government and other figures show up in Damascus and declare they’re a government in exile and have Syrians allow them to stay. If that happens, it will focus tremendous attention on Syria and be a focal point for continued resistance in Iraq.
GWEN IFILL: Well both the president and the defense secretary are focusing considerable attention on Syria; what do they think they’re getting at and how significant do we think because we heard Syrians today say we had nothing do with this — how likely is it Syria is involved?
JUDITH YAPHE: Syria is the most likely place for any fleeing Iraqi to go. Other borders would be closed you wouldn’t go to Iran or Turkey for that matter but Syria because of the affinity and I think because of the porous border – the assumption we make – fairly safe to get through and out of there – they won’t stay in Syria much too risky. If they declare a government in exile I think it would be far away. I don’t think they’ll stay there because Saddam Hussein would have to calculate it would be too easy to pressure Damascus, it would not be a safe place. Also the Iraqi Ba’athists have never been well liked in Syria, so the likelihood of them being turned over by what had been a rival group even a Ba’athist isn’t terribly important in Syria but high risk because of personal animosities.
GWEN IFILL: Is Syria unfriendly to the Saddam regime?
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: The two branches of the Ba’ath Party hate each other’s guts. And there are a lot of other little branches of the Ba’ath Party too. But, in fact, they have… it’s on open secret in the Middle East that in fact the Syrian government has been an awful lot to assist Iraqis the last few years, there’s been a lot of money to be made in one way or another. When you have a lot of outside enemies, it tends to focus people on relationships they wouldn’t otherwise want to have. I don’t know where else they would be safe. If they don’t stay in Syria, I wouldn’t think they’d go to the Riviera; I don’t think they’d go there.
JUDITH YAPHE: No. But there is a lot of money for Syria to make in the future but their own security not to be threatened by us, one of the reasons we’re bringing so much pressure on them.
GWEN IFILL: What do you mean by them?
JUDITH YAPHE: Bearing pressure on Syria; don’t safe haven; don’t provide a harbor for the renegade Iraqi fugitives. But the other thing there is a lot of money to be made in the future in terms of reconstruction investment getting oil pumped through the Syrian pipeline again. The Syrians will have to play this very carefully and it’s not going to be calculated to their advantage to provide help which could wind up getting them sanctioned.
GWEN IFILL: If Saddam or evidence of his remains aren’t found in Baghdad Tikrit or Syria, how important is it for the administration, for this operation to have evidence of Saddam’s whereabouts in order to declare this a victory?
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, I think perfectly we’re justified declaring it a victory now, no matter what happened to Saddam as long as he doesn’t show up. The issue helpful dealing with the rest of the Arab world and places like that to have physical evidence of his death because otherwise people are very good at constructing mythology out there and they’re going to start constructing some sort of myth of Saddam in hiding somewhere to lead the forces of nationalism or some such thing.
JUDITH YAPHE: It’s true. If you’re so great why couldn’t you find Saddam and couldn’t find Osama either. But the real success of the war will come the day after and not today or yesterday. I’m waiting to see who shakes out of the trees — who in this Saddam’s regime falls out and what we can find out from them — and also our success in establishing security law and order. That is going to be what brings us success in the medium and longer term.
GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk for a moment about people being shaken out of the trees; yesterday on the program we discussed the arrest of the scientist, of his top scientist. Today there are reports that his half brother was taken in. Is he a significant figure?
JUDITH YAPHE: No. Not really. Nice to have him but he’s been in virtual isolation since his nephew – Uday — Saddam’s oldest son shot him in the kneecaps in ’95 or ’96. It doesn’t matter but he’s been in virtual seclusion as two other brothers. Barsan is the brother I would want to get, the half brother; he was the one who was in Geneva many years, a real thug, head of security and intelligence and supposedly knew where a lot of money and assets taken abroad were buried. I would like to get my hands on him. My guess is he’s living in forced seclusion somewhere in Tikrit and has disappeared.
GWEN IFILL: Col. Lang, if you were doing your old job who you would like to get your hands on?
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: I think you need to get a few of these cabinet ministers and talk to them enough and find out for sure if they can indicate to you that Saddam is dead because that’s a very significant thing in terms of reformulate the political position across the Middle East. That I think would be at the top of my priority list.
GWEN IFILL: We’ll pick up with that next time. Pat Lang, Judith Yaphe thank you very much for joining us.
JUDITH YAPHE: You’re very welcome.