WASHINGTON — Iraq’s security forces are so infiltrated by either Sunni extremist informants or Shiite personnel backed by Iran that any Americans assigned to advise Baghdad’s forces could be at risk, The New York Times reported Sunday.
And, the Times wrote, a classified military assessment concludes that just half of Iraq’s operational units are capable enough for American commandos to advise them if the White House decides to help roll back the advances made by Sunni militants in northern and western Iraq over the past month.
Adding to the administration’s dilemma is the assessment’s conclusion that Iraqi forces loyal to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki are now heavily dependent on Shiite militias — many of which were trained in Iran — as well as on advisers from Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force.
Shiite militias fought American troops after the United States invaded Iraq and might again present a danger to American advisers. But without an American-led effort to rebuild Iraq’s security forces, there may be no hope of reducing the Iraqi government’s dependence on those Iranian-backed militias, the Times reported officials as saying.
The assessment, which took two weeks to prepare under the guidance of Army Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard, graded the strengths and weaknesses of units down to the brigade level, examining equipment, ammunition, sectarian makeup, morale, leadership and other indicators.
The assessment has reached the desks of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said Monday morning. Hagel had not yet had a chance to review the report, he said.
“There will be a matter of some time here as we work our way through what the assessments say, what the teams have found, before moving forward to any specific decisions about follow on military assistance to the Iraqi security forces,” Kirby said.
Senior leaders will fully digest the material before any recommendations are made about changes to the current mission, such as shifting to an operational advisory role. Currently, about 90 advisers are still assessing the strengths and weaknesses of Iraqi units, while approximately 120 more are working in two joint operations centers set up to share information and intelligence with the Iraqis, who face a powerful insurgent force that has taken over large swaths of the country.
“Everybody knows and shares the sense of urgency about what’s going on in Iraq, but it’s more important to get this issue right than to get it quick,” he said.
Kirby would not address any of the contents of the assessment by U.S. troops.
The findings underscore the challenges ahead for the Obama administration as it seeks to confront militants with the Islamic State, which has seized major cities in Iraq and all but erased the Syrian-Iraqi border, the Times noted.
At the center of the administration debate is whether to send more military advisers, weaponry and surveillance systems to a country teetering on the brink of collapse.
While sending American advisers to Iraq would expose them to risks and could embroil them again in conflict, the Times write that waiting to act might also limit the administration’s ability to counter the Islamic State and to encourage the formation of a more inclusive government in Baghdad.
The Pentagon’s decision this month to rush 200 troops, plus six Apache helicopter gunships and Shadow surveillance drones, to the Baghdad airport was prompted by a classified intelligence assessment that the sprawling complex, the main hub for sending and withdrawing American troops and diplomats, was vulnerable.
The assessment does not contain specific recommendations, the Times reported. Those will be developed by Central Command and the military’s Joint Staff once the final report is sent to the Pentagon and shared with President Obama and his top national security aides.
Stars and Stripes reporter Chris Carroll contributed to this report.