Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Iraq snapshot

Wednesday, March 25, 2015.  Chaos and violence continue, the US government authorizes airstrikes on Tikrit, which means the US is now working with a designated terrorist (designated such by the US government), fears emerge that Iranian forces in Iraq may attack US forces, and much more.

The biggest news out of Iraq today?

Dana Ford (CNN) announces, "Airstrikes started Wednesday in Tikrit, where Iraqi and coalition forces are battling to wrest control from ISIS."  Robert Burns (AP) explains, " The U.S. initially did not provide air support in Tikrit because Baghdad pointedly chose instead to partner with Iran in a battle it predicted would yield a quick victory."  Nasdaq spins, "The U.S. intervention is a blow to Iran, which has played a major role in commanding the Shiite militias and has also supplied weapons."

Also spinning was US State Dept spokesperson Jen Psaki who appeared to believe that she could bomb reality with excessive wordage:

These strikes were designed to destroy ISIL strongholds with precision -- protecting innocent Iraqis by minimizing damage to infrastructure, and enabling Iraqi forces under Iraqi command to continue offensive operations against ISIL in the vicinity of Tikrit. All strikes were coordinated with the Government of Iraq and Iraqi Security Forces through our Joint Operation Center in Baghdad.
Before today, the Coalition has conducted 2,967 airstrikes against ISIL terrorists, 1,678 in Iraq and 1,289 in Syria.  These airstrikes have had a significant impact on ISIL -- taking out thousands of fighters, numerous commanders, nearly 1,500 vehicles and tanks, over 100 artillery and mortar positions, and nearly 3,400 fighting positions, training camps, and bunkers in Iraq and Syria.  Airstrikes have also damaged close to 200 oil and gas facilities -- infrastructure that in part funds ISIL’s terror.  In addition, Coalition trainers have begun training Iraqi Army brigades at four sites in Iraq, and Coalition advisors have helped enable more than two dozen ground operations against ISIL strongholds across Iraq.
The cumulative effect of these actions has been enormous.  ISIL can no longer operate freely in roughly 25 percent of populated areas of Iraqi territory where they once could.  Its momentum has been blunted, its ability to mass and maneuver forces degraded, its leadership cells eliminated or pressured, and its supply lines severed.  ISIL is now on the defensive in Iraq and the lives of innocent Iraqis of all faiths and ethnicity have been saved.  As Iraqi forces increasingly mount offensive operations, they must do so under Iraqi command, with concerted efforts to protect local populations, and secure the human rights of all Iraqi citizens as mandated under the Iraqi constitution and as Prime Minister Abadi and other Iraq leaders have pledged.
 The United States and the Iraqi Government will continue to work together on our shared goal of defeating ISIL and training a professional national security force that can protect all the Iraqi people against extremist threats.

Of course, for a number of Iraqis, the "extremist threats" include Shi'ite militias who terrorize and kill Sunni civilians.  This reality was noted on Tuesday's Democracy Now! (link is text, video and audio):

AARON MATÉ: So, Erin, thank you for joining us. As we talk about your report on the rise of militias in Iraq, we’re joined by Erin Evers, Iraq researcher for Human Rights Watch. She co-wrote the new report, "After Liberation Came Destruction: Iraqi Militias and the Aftermath of Amerli," on the ground in Iraq with HRW since September 2012. Also joined by Matt Aikins, award-winning foreign correspondent. His latest piece for Rolling Stone is "Inside Baghdad’s Brutal Battle Against ISIS." He joins us by video stream from Karachi, Pakistan.
Erin Evers, thank you for joining us, as I said. Talk about what you found in Iraq.

ERIN EVERS: Well, we essentially documented that after U.S. coalition strikes in the town of Amerli, in Salahuddin province, routed ISIS from the town of Amerli, along with—along with militias and security forces fighting on the ground—

AMY GOODMAN: And describe where Amerli is.

ERIN EVERS: Amerli is in Salahuddin, which is north of Baghdad. It’s the same province that Tikrit is in. And the town itself is kind of the northeast of the province. So, ISIS had been laying siege to this town for two months. The ground forces alone were unable to route ISIS from the town, but then, after the U.S. airstrikes on August 31st, they cleared ISIS from the town, then proceeded to spread out throughout Salahuddin province and neighboring Kirkuk province, and attacked the Sunni villages in those provinces. So they essentially laid siege to all of the Sunni villages in a pretty broad area, set homes on fire, looted them, in some cases destroyed them with explosives and earth-moving equipment.
We used satellite imagery. We were on the ground, obviously, and saw some of the destruction with our own eyes, spoke to about 30 persons who were displaced as a result of—as a result of this clearing operation. And then we used satellite imagery in order to determine that the damage that we saw was in fact caused by militias and not in the course of fighting or by ISIS. So we had determined the timeline, essentially, of when what we saw happened, so that we could be clear that those areas were under the control of militias and not under the control of ISIS or not, you know—not engaging in battle at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: Why are the militias doing this? And what is their relationship to the Iraqi army?

ERIN EVERS: So, the militias are not under any formal chain of command. They are leading the fight against ISIS, and they are responsible, essentially, to themselves.
Why they’re doing this, I think, is really anybody’s guess. But from statements that—you know, statements that we’ve heard from militia leaders and from what people on the ground have told us that militia—you know, militia fighters were saying to them when they were on the ground, it seems like they were essentially trying to clear the area of Sunnis.
And after this campaign, several months afterwards, in January, the same militias went through Diyala province, which is a province neighboring Iran, and essentially carried out the same kinds of operations, except at an even more extreme kind of level. So, whereas in this report we documented militias kidnapping people and torturing people, in Diyala we documented the same militias carrying out summary executions of Sunni civilians and even a large massacre of 72 civilians in one town in Diyala in the course of their fighting.

AARON MATÉ: Is there any evidence they’ve been doing this with U.S. weapons?

ERIN EVERS: We’ve seen them with U.S. weapons. We don’t know exactly how they’ve gotten their hands on these weapons, you know, so there’s a lot of speculation as to how they’re getting the weapons. Some people say that they’re getting them through the Iraqi army, which is the official recipient of the weapons. And other people—you know, other people are saying that they’re getting them from ISIS, which obviously is also getting the weapons in the course of their fight on the ground.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to read to you a quote from the former CIA director, David Petraeus, former—he’s also a general. He told The Washington Post, quote, "I would argue that the foremost threat to Iraq’s long-term stability and the broader regional equilibrium is not the Islamic State; rather, it is Shiite militias, many backed by—and some guided by—Iran," Petraeus said. He went on to say, quote, "Longer term, Iranian-backed Shia militia could emerge as the preeminent power in the country, one that is outside the control of the government and instead answerable to Tehran." Your response to this, Erin?

ERIN EVERS: I think, unfortunately, that that’s a correct evaluation of where Iraq is headed.

But don't expect those realities from the US government.  And don't expect spokespeople like Jen Psaki to be forthcoming when asked direct questions.  For example, at the State Dept press briefing today, she was far less of a Chatty Cathy than she had been in her written statement.

QUESTION: We heard different, like, responses from Pentagon and then yesterday, I think, from the Iraqi President Masum, he said that the U.S. will help Iraqi Government in the operations – Iraqi army, of course – around Tikrit. What is the latest update on that?

MS. PSAKI: Well, the latest – and I can confirm – is that the Government of Iraq has formally requested, as I think many of you have seen, ISR support for their operations in Tikrit, and the U.S. is now providing ISR support. On airstrikes, as you know, the coalition has continued to provide air support in the fight against ISIL with multiple airstrikes on ISIL targets in various locations. I would note multiple airstrikes in the last several days, but I’m not going to speak more specifically to tactical or strategic operational decisions or actions beyond that.

QUESTION: There are airstrike support for the Iraqi army in Tikrit. That’s what you are --

MS. PSAKI: I’m referring to around Iraq. I can confirm the ISR support. I’m not going to predict additional action.

QUESTION: But I think that so far it hasn’t been done, any, like, effort – airstrikes around Tikrit, so --

MS. PSAKI: Well again, I’m not going to predict, and I think the Department of Defense would be the appropriate agency to speak to that.

The Defense Dept issued their own statement:

March 25, 2015
Release # 20150325.2

At the request of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi,
Coalition Operations commence in Tikrit

SOUTHWEST ASIA – CJTF-OIR operations to support Iraqi Security Forces in Tikrit have commenced after a request from the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi. The Coalition is now providing direct support to Iraqi Security Forces conducting operations to expel ISIL from the city. CJTF-OIR is providing air strikes, airborne intelligence capabilities, and Advise and Assist support to Iraqi Security Force headquarters elements in order to enhance their ability to defeat ISIL.
"These strikes are intended to destroy ISIL strongholds with precision, thereby saving innocent Iraqi lives while minimizing collateral damage to infrastructure,” said Lt. Gen. James L. Terry, CJTF-OIR commanding general. “This will further enable Iraqi forces under Iraqi command to maneuver and defeat ISIL in the vicinity of Tikrit."
Iraqi Security Forces have ISIL in Tikrit encircled. Renewed efforts on the ground, supported by the Coalition are aimed at dislodging ISIL fighting elements from Tikrit and once again placing the town under the Government of Iraq’s control. The CJTF-OIR Coalition will continue to support the Iraqi Security Forces and the GoI to degrade and defeat ISIL.
For additional information contact:
COM: U.S. 1-803-885-8265 or in Southwest Asia
COM: 00-965-2221-6340, then dial 430-6419# or 430-5129#

So Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi requested it.  And Haider spoke in Iraq today . . . but 'forgot' -- when speaking of Tikrit -- to note the new US involvement.

Loveday Morris, Karen DeYoung and Missy Ryan (Washington Post) ignore Haider's US admission but do note his public remarks:

Abadi announced the new push for Tikrit in a televised address Wednesday night, saying that the city’s “hour of salvation” had come. He did not specifically mention coalition airstrikes, but he said, “We will liberate each inch of Iraq. The victory of Iraq is being achieved by Iraqis, hero Iraqis . . . with support from friendly countries and the international coalition.”

    1. | Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi in televised speech on US Airstrikes in "Hour of victory has arrived"

  • While ignoring the issue of US airstrikes in his public remarks, Haider did address the issue with the Shi'ite forces.  Salahuddin Province council member Jassem Atiya tells Mark Seibel (McClatchy Newspapers) about how that went:

    In a phone interview, Atiya said Abadi told the militias that he was authorizing the American participation “because the Tikrit battle needed to be completed so that security forces could move on to Anbar and Mosul,” two other Islamic State strongholds.
    The operation to take Tikrit was announced with great fanfare March 2, with an estimated 20,000 Shiite militia fighters advised by Iranian military commanders taking the lead in the fighting. But after initial success in capturing towns outside Tikrit, the effort stalled 10 days ago, hindered by heavy government casualties and a disagreement over what tactics to follow.

    Read more here:

    The battle has underscored how weak Tehran is militarily with the few hundred estimated Islamic State fighters being able to outstrategize Tehran and Baghdad.

     Michael Hess (UK Blasting News) puts it this way:

    The US military is providing aerial intelligence to Iranian forces working against Islamic State (IS) in Tikrit, Iraq in a bid to break the hold on the besieged city. Tikrit was overrun by IS which on June 14th, 2014 committed atrocities, including the massacre of at least 800, on Iraqi Air Force trainees at the former U.S. base Speicher, converted into an air force training college. Tikrit was the site of Saddam Hussein's tomb but it has since been destroyed in the fighting.  

    The Tehran alliance was supposed to provide Baghdad with a decisive victory which could be used to rally the military.  That's why Tikrit was chosen in the first place.  It was to be the red flag waved before the charging bull.  But the 'bull' lumbered towards the city for days and, when it finally got outside the city, the bull took a long, long nap.

    Nancy A. Youssef (Daily Beast) offers, "The Tikrit campaign was launched with a patchwork force of 20,000 Shiite militiamen, 3,000 Iraqi troops, and a bevy of Iranian troops, tanks, weapons and missile strikes. And in the early days of the campaign, Gen. Qassem Suleiman, leader of the Iranian Quds force, was on the ground in Tikrit."

    Pete D'Amato (Daily Mail) offers:

    Iran has provided artillery and other weaponry for the Tikrit battle, and senior Iranian advisers have helped Iraq coordinate the offensive. 
    Iraq pointedly did not request US air support when it launched the offensive in early March and recently, the offensive has lost momentum. 
    Col Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said Wednesday the Iraqi forces have encircled Tikrit but not yet made significant inroads into the heavily defended city limits.
    'They are stalled,' he said.

    Before today's announcement was made, Michael B. Kelley (Business Insider) noted:

    "There's just no way that the US military can actively support an offensive led by Suleimani," Christopher Harmer, a former aviator in the United States Navy in the Persian Gulf who is now an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, told Helene Cooper of The New York Times recently. "He's a more stately version of Osama bin Laden."
    Suleimani's Iraqi allies — such as the powerful Badr militia — are known for allegedly burning down Sunni villages and using power drills on enemies.
    "It's a little hard for us to be allied on the battlefield with groups of individuals who are unrepentantly covered in American blood," Ryan Crocker, a career diplomat who served as the US ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009, told US News.

    In addition, Michael Crowley (POLITICO) explains US officials are nervous about two potential scenarios in Iraq which, "[i]n either case, U.S. officials fear, Iran could direct the Iraqi Shiite militias under its control to attack U.S. troops aiding the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant."

    That fear may make Barack Obama's decision even more controversial.  But the decision to drop bombs and assist the  Baghdad-Tehran alliance -- led by Iranian general Qassem Soleimani (identified by the US government as a terrorist) -- was already controversial and questionable due to Soleimani's presence.

    Deep consternation exists in Washington, among both political parties, over the appearance of US warplanes providing close air support for Shia militias and their Iranian sponsors. Some US-trained Iraqi military units and Shia militias are under investigation for committing atrocities, similar to those of Isis. The Iranian general Qassem Suleimani is believed to be playing a leadership role in what has devolved into a grinding fight to recapture Saddam Hussein’s birthplace from Isis.
    “There’s going to be some tightrope-walking in saying this is an Iraqi security forces offensive and not an Iranian militia offensive,” said Christopher Harmer, a retired US navy officer and analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, who said he was “astonished” at the development.

    Since 2001, the US government has identified Suleimani as a terrorist.

    Brookings Institution's Mike Doran Tweets it this way:

  • Michael Weiss Tweets:

  • Some are trying to spin the move as a plus.  Greg Jaffe (Washington Post) offers:

    The U.S. airstrikes, if successful in breaking the bloody stalemate, would make clear to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and his commanders that they need U.S. military power to defeat Sunni extremists. “We can use the Iraqis’ failure in Tikrit to show what happens if you stiff-arm the U.S. in favor of Iran,” said Stephen Biddle, a frequent adviser to the Pentagon and a professor at George Washington University. “The message is that if you really want a better partner, stick with us and not the Iranians.”

    Finally, Margaret Griffis ( counts 109 violent deaths across Iraq today.