Bagh­dad in­va­sion plot en­dan­gers Iraqi gov­ern­ment

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY ROWAN SCAR­BOR­OUGH

The Is­lamic State holds just about the same num­ber of towns in Iraq to­day as it did two months ago, when the U.S. be­gan a bombing cam­paign to whit­tle down the ter­ror­ist army and support Iraqi ground troops try­ing to re­take ter­ri­tory.

More trou­bling, an­a­lysts say, is that the Is­lamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL, is ramp­ing up what ap­pear to be op­er­a­tions de­signed to one day in­vade Bagh­dad.

Its ob­jec­tive is to take the in­ter­na­tional air­port and be­gin con­quer­ing the cap­i­tal, sec­tion by sec­tion. The Is­lamic State is con­tin­u­ing its ur­ban at­tacks with car bombs, some of which have been det­o­nated by for­eign sui­cide bombers.

The Pen­tagon is not openly con­fi­dent that the Iraqi Se­cu­rity Forces will hold Bagh­dad. A spokesman has de­clined to pre­dict that the sprawl­ing city will stay in gov­ern­ment con­trol.

The 2-month-old air cam­paign can be viewed in two ways. On one hand, the U.S. coali­tion strikes have slowed and, in some cases, stopped the Is­lamic State’s ad­vances. On the other hand, they have done lit­tle to achieve the ul­ti­mate goal of break­ing the ter­ror­ists’ grip on Mo­sul, Tal Afar, Fal­lu­jah and more than 10 other towns in north­ern and western Iraq.

The Is­lamic State has cap­tured large swaths of ter­ri­tory in Iraq and Syria and has de­clared it­self a caliphate.

One Iraq War veteran said the bombing has been fall­ing short.

“I judge the bombing, quite frankly, to the strate­gic aims in Iraq be­ing two ob­jec­tives,” said re­tired Army Lt. Gen. James Du­bik, who su­per­vised the train­ing of Iraqi forces dur­ing the 2007 U.S. troop surge. “Re­store the sov­er­eign bor­der of Iraq and, two, elim­i­nate ISIS as a threat to the sovereignty of Iraq. And they have cer­tainly not done any­thing to those aims.”

Oth­ers see a pos­i­tive side. Slow­ing the Is­lamic State’s ad­vances “shows that we have been suc­cess­ful with the eas­ier, first stage,” said Michael O’Han­lon, a mil­i­tary an­a­lyst at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion. “The hard part, as pre­dicted, is tak­ing ter­ri­tory back. Air power can’t, won’t do it.”

In Iraq on Sun­day, the Is­lamic State pub­licly killed six Iraqi sol­diers cap­tured in western An­bar prov­ince, where the ter­ror­ists con­tinue to ad­vance de­spite the ex­pand­ing U.S.-led cam­paign of airstrikes, res­i­dents told The As­so­ci­ated Press.

In Syria, the ter­ror­ist army shelled the be­lea­guered Syr­ian Kur­dish town of Kobani, near the bor­der with Turkey, as part of its week­s­long of­fen­sive against the town and sur­round­ing vil­lages that has forced 160,000 peo­ple to flee across the bor­der.

An­a­lysts for the In­sti­tute for the Study of War reg­u­larly publish a map ti­tled “Con­trol of Ter­rain in Iraq,” which uses color codes to des­ig­nate who con­trols what, and what re­mains up for grabs.

It is note­wor­thy how sim­i­lar the map of Aug. 10, when the air cam­paign be­gan, is with the one pub­lished Fri­day, two months later. It paints the pic­ture of an en­trenched Is­lamic State that is still threat­en­ing gov­ern­ment-held ter­ri­tory in Iraq.

The Au­gust map showed the ter­ror­ist group in con­trol of 14 Iraqi towns, plus the Mo­sul Dam, which coali­tion forces later re­took. The lat­est map shows the Is­lamic State group in con­trol of 13 towns. A col­lec­tion of vil­lages east of Mo­sul has gone from Is­lamic State dom­i­na­tion to “con­tested” — not a sig­nif­i­cant de­vel­op­ment in more than two months of bomb­ings.

The Is­lamic State’s main tar­get is Bagh­dad. Scenes of a U.S. evac­u­a­tion would be a ma­jor bat­tle­field and pub­lic re­la­tions vic­tory for the al Qaeda spinoff group and its bru­tal, homi­ci­dal meth­ods.

Mr. Du­bik, the re­tired gen­eral who is now an an­a­lyst at the In­sti­tute for the Study of War, ex­pressed worry that the Is­lamic State is set­ting the stage for an in­va­sion by sys­tem­at­i­cally knock­ing off Iraqi troops while stay­ing be­low the radar so as not to at­tract airstrikes.

“I don’t think there is im­me­di­ate dan­ger of por­tions of Bagh­dad fall­ing right now,” he said. “But I think they are try­ing to set the con­di­tions to try to con­trol parts of Bagh­dad. The Iraqi forces are not do­ing as well as we ex­pect them to in and around Bagh­dad.”

Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, press sec­re­tary to De­fense Sec­re­tary Chuck Hagel, has de­fended the air war strat­egy stead­fastly as just one piece of a larger plan to de­grade and then de­stroy the Is­lamic State.

One almost im­me­di­ate ef­fect is that the Is­lamic State is no longer free to move around Iraq as it did in June and July, when fight­ers swept into north­ern Iraq from Syria and cap­tured about a dozen towns.

“They, not sur­pris­ingly, have got­ten bet­ter at con­ceal­ment,” Adm. Kirby said. “Be­fore the airstrikes hap­pened, they pretty much had free reign. They don’t have that free reign any­more, be­cause they know we’re watch­ing from the air.”

“They have dis­persed,” he said. “Whereas be­fore they were more struc­turally co­he­sive in cer­tain places, almost act­ing like, in some ways, an army. We’ve not given them credit for be­ing an army, of course, but we have talked about the mil­i­tary-type or­ga­ni­za­tions and skills that they had been de­vel­op­ing.”

Asked last week whether the Iraqi army can hold Bagh­dad, Adm. Kirby was non­com­mit­tal.

“There’s a lot of things I’m not good at,” he said. “One of them is pre­dict­ing the fu­ture. … The Iraqi Se­cu­rity Forces have been con­tin­u­ing to stiffen their de­fense around the city. We be­lieve that they’ve done a good job with that. They’ll con­tinue to fo­cus on it.”

Adm. Kirby also dis­closed that the Pen­tagon, two months into the anti-Is­lamic State op­er­a­tion, does plan to give it a name, as is pro­ce­dure for all sig­nif­i­cant U.S. mil­i­tary cam­paigns.

Pen­tagon in­sid­ers have been telling re­porters that Pres­i­dent Obama does not want an op­er­a­tional name be­cause he then would be per­son­ally tied to his own ini­ti­ated war. He de­picted him­self as a pres­i­dent who ends wars, not starts them.

“I can tell you that there is an ef­fort un­der­way to con­sider a po­ten­tial name for this op­er­a­tion,” Adm. Kirby said.

Giv­ing it a dis­tinct name — “Op­er­a­tion” — would make mil­i­tary per­son­nel el­i­gi­ble for a cam­paign rib­bon.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

The Turk­ish mil­i­tary is for­ti­fy­ing its bor­der as fight­ing in­ten­si­fies be­tween Syr­ian Kurds and the Is­lamic State group in Kobani.

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