WASHINGTON — The United States finds itself confronting a delicate issue as it opens two joint operations centers in Iraq to help that nation’s forces battle Sunni Muslim extremists who’ve seized much of the countryside:
How much information can U.S. military advisers give their Iraqi counterparts without having sensitive data end up in the hands of two countries with whom the United States often is at odds, Iran and Russia?
Like the United States, which has authorized at least 300 troops to advise Iraqi government forces, Iran and — to a lesser extent — Russia have “boots on the ground” to help the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki counter the advance by the extremist group Islamic State. Russia provided a dozen jet fighters and what it calls “technical advisers” on the planes to Iraq, while Iran has provided equipment and perhaps 100 military advisers who are thought to be deployed with the Shiite Muslim militias who’ve been called on to supplement the besieged Iraqi troops.
Also like the United States, which is flying as many as three dozen reconnaissance flights over Iraq daily to gather information, Iran is flying surveillance drones over the country.
But the United States, Russia and Iran have long been rivals in a wide range of conflicts, not the least of which is Syria next door, where the U.S. is supporting rebels who were once allied with the Islamic State in their efforts to topple the government of President Bashar Assad. Iran and Russia back Assad.
Because of the odd alliance unfolding in Iraq, every piece of intelligence the United States obtains about the military situation will be assessed to determine how much can be shared with the Iraqis, three U.S. defense officials told McClatchy. The officials, none of whom was willing to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, said they anticipated that the Iraqis would get only limited information, and the source of the information often would be concealed. In some instances, it’s likely that the U.S. will provide only a summary or analysis of what it knows.
But it remains possible that the United States might end up sharing intelligence information with Iran, a country that it hasn’t had diplomatic relations with, much less a working military relationship, since the 1970s. In a question and answer session with reporters Thursday, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it was “not impossible in the future” that the United States would be communicating with Iran about the situation in Iraq.
Sharing as much information as possible would be the goal under most circumstances.
“We’re always careful, of course, with dealing with other nations and intelligence. But we believe there’s great value, and we can’t frankly do our job … unless there’s a measure of trust and open dialogue that we can have with Iraqi security forces. That’s what our goal is,” said Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman.
In addition to sharing intelligence, the troops the United States has deployed to Iraq are assessing the situation to determine whether the U.S. should conduct additional operations. No determination has yet been made on what military actions the United States should take, if any, Dempsey said Thursday.
The Pentagon acknowledged that the 180 U.S. troops who are working in and around Baghdad are engaging in a balancing act. Of those, 90 are part of six teams that are traveling around Baghdad and the other half are working out of the joint operations headquarters. On Thursday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said the United States had opened a second operations center in Irbil, the capital of the semiautonomous Kurdish zone, but he provided no specifics on what those at the center will be doing.
Kirby said that for now, the U.S. was focused on combating the Islamic State’s advance and not on other conflicts, such as Syria, where Russia and Iran were on the other side.
“The only side we’re taking is an anti-ISIL position,” he said, using the U.S. government’s abbreviation for the Islamic State.
Aside from sharing intelligence, the U.S. might also find that its advisers are on the same battlefield with Iranians fulfilling a similar assignment. U.S. officials said they’d already determined that Iraqi units would benefit from having American troops stationed at brigade-level headquarters.
Iran has assigned perhaps 100 advisers to work with smaller units on ways to fend off the threat from the Islamists, Pentagon officials think.
James Jeffrey, who served in Iraq as the U.S. ambassador from 2010 to 2012, said filtering and firewalling information was common, even with U.S. allies, when it came to intelligence sharing. He said he thought that in this instance there would be no harm if the Iranians or the Russians knew what the United States knew.
“We have a common interest. Do we want to kill ISIS? Then we will work with whomever,” Jeffrey said, using another acronym for the Islamic State, which was known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria until last weekend, when it declared a cross-border caliphate and dropped the country designations from its name.
In addition, sharing intelligence is a means to build trust and to establish with the Iraqis that they can trust U.S. information.
“You have to give a little to get a little,” he said.