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October 27, 2006
Notes from the Pentagon

Assad's weakness
An intelligence source tells us Bashar Assad, who inherited leadership of Syria, is no strongman like his late father, Hafez. In his sixth year as leader, Bashar is largely controlled by Ba'ath Party operatives who oppose better relations with the West.

The source tells us it is Bashar Assad's aides who push the 40-year-old dictator to support Hezbollah destabilization activities in Lebanon and allow al Qaeda jihadists to use Syria as a staging point for infiltrating Iraq and killing Americans and Iraqis. "He could not keep them out even if he wanted to, unless he cracks down on his own operatives," said the source, who estimates there are hundreds of al Qaeda terrorists moving through Syria unencumbered.

Syria, like Iraq under Saddam Hussein, is a Ba'ath Party socialist police state. Damascus has no interest in seeing a Democracy sprout next door. The Bush administration once hoped that Bashar Assad, an ophthalmologist by training who only sought power after the death of his older brother, would moderate Hafez's strident anti-Israel policies. But he has not.

The one time that Bashar Assad appeared triumphant over his coterie of advisers is when he pulled army troops out of Lebanon, as the United Nations demanded. But he has kept operatives inside the war-torn Lebanon and is furiously rearming Hezbollah in violation of a U.N. cease-fire.

Pakistan and Iran
It is somewhat surprising how little the Bush administration knows about what could be become a historic agreement in the war on radical Islamists. Last summer, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf approved a deal with tribal leaders with whom his army had been fighting and dying in Waziristan, an ungoverned expanse on the Afghan border.

Gen. Musharraf insists the deal is good for the U.S. It calls for a cease-fire as long as the tribes stop providing aid and comfort to Taliban members who regroup in Pakistan before going back into Afghanistan. Some pundits have ripped the agreement as a surrender to tribal militants who may be hiding Osama bin Laden.

R. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, said he did not know much about the deal when he met recently with reporters and editors of The Washington Times. The CIA declined to comment.

Now we see that the top U.S. commander in the region, Gen. John Abizaid, is at best skeptical.

"Well I guess like anybody I'm kind of wait and see," he recently told a group of defense reporters. "I hate to answer one of your questions with 'I don't know,' but I don't know. I did talk to President Musharraf about it. I told him I was concerned about it .. The long run is, you've got to go forward in the tribal areas with economic, political and military solutions that the tribes cooperate with. But I'm very, very skeptical about this notion that people that have been harbored in the tribal areas are no longer going to be harbored. I'll believe that when I see it."

Gen. Abizaid, who heads U.S. Central Command, also presented facts on which any observer could conclude that the U.S. is in a war in Iran.

It appears that Iran is supplying insurgents with RPG-29, a dual-headed warhead that is destroying U.S. armored vehicles. Worse, Iran is manufacturing and exporting explosively formed penetrators (EFPs). It is a more devastating edition of the ubiquitous improvised explosive device. The EFP unleashes an array of warheads certain to hit any object within range. Iranian-backed Hezbollah developed the bomb to kill Israelis. Now, Iran is making EFPs and shipping them into Iraq to kill U.S. troops.

Baghdad show
It was a double-barreled press conference. The two most-powerful men in Iraq, Gen. George Casey and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, appeared before a skeptical Baghdad press corps to give the impression of war momentum. Gen. Casey talked of Iraqi security-force progress; Mr. Khalilzad trumpeted a "national compact" that could end the violence in a year.

The press reaction?

A CBS news reporter said U.S. commanders in the field say they cannot count on a full Iraqi unit to arrive on the scene. Some units are only half strength. "So the numbers really are a lie, and we want the truth, and your soldiers on the ground want the truth out there," said reporter Lara Logan.

"The numbers aren't a lie, and the numbers are prepared by the soldiers in the field and their Iraqi counterparts on a monthly basis," Gen. Casey said. He conceded, however, that not all brigades are manned at 100 percent and that a defense ministry policy allows 25 percent of a unit on leave at any one time.

A reporter for the British Broadcasting Corp., a consistent critic of the Iraq war, suggested the country was better off with Saddam Hussein in charge. Said Mr. Khalilzad, "During Saddam thousands upon thousands of Iraqis were killed as a result of a government policy. Now these killings are taking place by the terrorists, by death squads. And the government, with support of the coalition, is trying to bring that to an end."

Sinking polls
A new Gallup Poll shows more Americans are not happy with events in Iraq, where more than 2,800 U.S. service members have died since April 2003.

The survey showed 65 percent of respondents said things are going badly in Iraq, compared with 35 percent who say things are going well. A majority of 58 percent say neither side is winning the war.

Yet, only 20 percent support an immediate withdrawal of all troops, a position endorsed by Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat. But another 34 percent want withdrawal in 12 months. Nearly 45 percent either back getting the job done first (35 percent) or sending more troops (9 percent).

Rumor mill
One constant in Washington since the Iraq war went sour is that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is out the door. The latest word from Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol is that Mr. Rumsfeld will leave after the Nov. 7 elections.

Mark Larson, host of a popular radio talk show on KOGO in San Diego, asked Mr. Rumsfeld about the prediction during a live interview this week at the White House. "Rumsfeld will leave after the election," Mr. Kristol said on Fox News Sunday.

"That fellow said the same damn thing in April of 2001," Mr. Rumsfeld responded. "He has been on that shtick, and people keep repeating it and repeating it. I don't know why they listen to him. He's been wrong so many times. There ought to be some accountability."

  • Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough are Pentagon reporters. Gertz can be reached at 202/636-3274 or by e-mail at Scarborough can be reached at 202/636-3208 or by e-mail at

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