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Pentagon: Iraq has half of its security forces in Baghdad

By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 13, 2016

WASHINGTON — Roughly half of Iraq’s American-trained security forces are stationed in and around Baghdad to protect the country’s capital, where recent political turmoil was followed this week by a wave of terrorist attacks, a U.S. military spokesman said Friday.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the truck bomb attacks Wednesday and Thursday that killed nearly 100 people and wounded almost 180 more, said U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State group coalition. The bombings largely targeted Shia Muslim civilians who were “not in any way shape or form … combatants or a threat to” the Islamic State group, he said.

Securing Baghdad, a city of six million people, will be difficult, Warren said. But the United States has advised the Iraqis that they have enough soldiers and police in the area to protect the city without pulling Iraqi troops from the front lines as they push toward the Islamic State group’s de facto Iraq capital, Mosul, the country’s second largest city.

Those forces have inched closer to Mosul than at any point since the city fell to the Islamic State group in 2014, Army Maj. Gen. Gary Volesky, the U.S. ground forces commander for Operation Inherent Resolve, said Wednesday. Both Volesky and Warren declined to provide a timeline for when Mosul could be retaken, but they said the Iraqi government remains committed to that fight even as issues arise in Baghdad.

“We have not seen a call to move forces that are currently conducting operations against (the Islamic State group) in both the Euphrates River Valley and the Tigris River Valley back to Baghdad,” Volesky said.

Warren, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon during a video conference, said the Islamic State group attacks were “opportunity targets” that aimed to grab attention.

“They have lost ground almost continuously for half a year,” he said. “They’ve really taken a beating particularly in Iraq, where we’ve seen them lose city after city, region after region. They’ve lost their money, they’ve lost their leaders … I think they want to try to make a statement and they know these very high visibility attacks get attention.”

But the attacks could also serve to expand political turmoil in Iraq’s capital, according to a report by the Institute for the Study of War. Protestors loyal to powerful, anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have been protesting the U.S.-backed Iraqi government for several months. Last week, those protestors briefly stormed the Green Zone, Baghdad’s fortified district that includes Iraqi government buildings and the U.S. Embassy.

“These explosive attacks will play a major factor in the ongoing political dynamics in Baghdad and aggravate already tense relations between the government and protesters if the government fails to guarantee basic security in the city,” the ISW report stated.

Warren said there were no signs the Iraqi government would cool to American or coalition involvement in the fight to eliminate the Islamic State group. Last month, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced several plans to expand the role of American troops in that mission. So far, those steps have not been taken.

That is not related to the issues in Baghdad, Warren said.

Carter announced April 18 a plan to increase troop strength in Iraq by more than 200 forces, add American AH-64 Apache attack helicopters to the fight and expand the coalition’s mission to train Iraqis. Those “accelerants” are aimed to boost the Iraqis’ slow march toward Mosul.

“We do not believe that any of this recent stuff – whether it be [Islamic State group] … bombings or the political churn that’s taken place or the demonstrations we’ve seen are going to impact our ability to flow these additional forces in and get them into position to assist the Iraqi security forces in their effort to prepare to eventually liberate Mosul,” Warren said. “… Their focus needs to remain on defeating this enemy once and for all, thereby eliminating any threat completely.”

dickstein.corey@stripes.com
Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

 

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