Distrust hinders US-Iraq fight against resurgent al-Qaida militants
WASHINGTON — With insurgents linked to al-Qaida battling for control of two major Iraqi cities, long-standing suspicion between the Obama administration and the government in Baghdad is hindering joint efforts against a common foe.
Sunni Muslim militants have gained control of territory in western Iraq’s Anbar province in recent weeks, and intense fighting has broken out in two of Anbar’s main cities, Fallujah and Ramadi, that were the sites of crucial battles during the Iraq war. On Friday, militants waving the al-Qaida flag blew up key government buildings in Fallujah.
The Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has rushed reinforcements into the region. More than 8,000 Iraqis died in the fighting last year, according to United Nations figures, making it the bloodiest year since 2008. But in one sign of the gap between Washington and Baghdad, al-Maliki’s government recently halted secret U.S. surveillance flights by unarmed drones.
Across the border in Syria, militant groups are playing an increasingly large role in the insurgency against President Bashar Assad. Among the most prominent militant groups on both sides of the border is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The group has roots in Iraq, but the civil war in Syria has provided fresh supplies of money, weapons and fighters. Under the leadership of Abu Bakr Baghdadi, it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate including the territory of both Syria and Iraq.
As some ISIS militants were fighting government forces in western Iraq on Friday, others were battling other Syrian rebel groups trying to limit their reach near Aleppo, in western Syria.
Some current and former U.S. officials say they believe the White House is still weighing how deeply it wants to be involved in containing the militants, but several former officials are urging it to waste no time in stepping up its efforts.
“It was bad enough when this contagion was just inside Syria, but now it’s spreading, and that’s a whole lot worse,” said Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009. Nothing could be more worrisome, he said, than the militant groups’ plan to expand their grip on territory, giving them a base from which they could plot long-range operations.
For about eight weeks, unarmed U.S. drones sporadically flew over Anbar to gather intelligence to target militants, but they “have been temporarily halted at the request of the Iraqi government,” a senior U.S. official said.
Iraq has also rejected proposals for the use of armed U.S. drones in its airspace for fear of a public outcry.
The insurgency has built support in Anbar because of Sunnis’ perceptions that they have been disenfranchised by al-Maliki’s government, which is dominated by Shiite Muslims. Sunnis also are at the heart of the rebellion against Assad. The Assad government is based in his Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and is closely allied with Iran’s Shiite government.
U.S. officials have worried about being drawn into a sectarian war. They fear that military gear supplied to the Iraqis could be used by the government not just to fight the insurgents, but to suppress its Sunni political enemies. They also worry that weapons given to Baghdad could end up being diverted to Syria and used by fighters supporting Assad.
Al-Maliki’s government has lobbied aggressively for U.S. military hardware in recent months, but has resisted other offers of military aid. The government apparently worries about U.S. snooping and potential negative public reaction to close cooperation with the former occupying power.
Al-Maliki plans to seek a third term in office, another factor that has made him reluctant to appear too close to the United States, U.S. officials believe.
Brian Katulis, a Middle East specialist at the Center for American Progress, said that though there has been cooperation between Washington and Baghdad, “there has been a fundamental misalignment between what the U.S. is willing to offer and what they’re willing to accept.”
U.S. officials believe the key to gaining ground in the fight is finding and destroying the militants and their camps. They have offered intelligence-gathering efforts and related hardware.
But the Iraqis “are less willing to accept that, because they’re worried it’s going to allow the U.S. to look under the hood and see what they’re doing,” Katulis said. Instead, he said, the Iraqis have emphasized big-ticket military hardware that they could operate themselves, including F-16 fighters and Apache helicopters.
The Obama administration, which withdrew its last troops from the country in 2011, has proclaimed the militants’ advance a problem of concern not only to Baghdad.
It “poses a threat to the entire region, and to the United States,” President Barack Obama said in November, before a meeting with al-Maliki to discuss arms aid and other issues.
The Pentagon last month sent 75 Hellfire missiles to Iraq to be used on propeller planes in the fight against the militants, and the U.S. plans to send ScanEagles, a small surveillance drone with limited tactical range.
Though the U.S. aid has been welcome, military analysts say, Iraq will need far more to fight the militants, who now often have heavier weapons than Iraqi government forces.
A senior U.S. official said the Pentagon currently had no plan to offer more arms beyond what has already been authorized.
The secret surveillance flights that have now been halted grew out of a request for greater military help that al-Maliki made during a visit to the U.S. in November. U.S. officials said at the time that while Iraq’s hardware request would take some time, they could begin the surveillance almost immediately. Iraq agreed.
The flights offered far better intelligence than could be gathered with the small ScanEagles. They could peer deep into Syria, as well as at the border region, officials said.
James Jeffrey, U.S. ambassador to Iraq during Obama’s first term, said he believed the administration would have “no other choice” than to provide more military aid.
Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, said Friday that the administration’s focus is first a diplomatic one of trying to persuade the Iraqi government to join Sunni leaders in Anbar in resisting the extremists’ incursions.
“Our overall point is to encourage moderates on all sides and isolate extremists,” she said.
In Syria, groups linked to al-Qaida have increasingly been fighting other rebel groups with which they are nominally allied. On Friday, clashes took place in the northern part of the country as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria tried to seize the town of Atarib, near Aleppo, to capture a former government military base.
From Atarib, the clashes spread to several neighborhoods in Aleppo, where local rebel groups claimed to have expelled the ISIS fighters. Casualties were reported on both sides, but an accurate death toll was not available.
“It’s a war, not just battles,” said Aleppo activist Nazeer Khatib.