Fis­sures form­ing in US-Iraqi al­liance

Amer­i­can forces re­main, but joint op­er­a­tions stopped

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - NATION & WORLD - By Samya Kul­lab and Qas­sim Ab­dul-Zahra

BAGH­DAD — A new watch­tower rose over an Amer­i­can mil­i­tary base in north­ern Iraq, and cranes lifted hefty slabs of con­crete to re­in­force the bar­ri­cades in beefed-up po­si­tions. The dan­ger, sol­diers there said, came not from the con­stel­la­tion of mil­i­tant sleeper cells em­bed­ded in the land­scape but fur­ther afield in Iran.

U.S. forces in Iraq have been on guard for re­tal­i­a­tion by Iran or its Shi­ite mili­tia al­lies since the U.S. killed Iran’s top gen­eral in Iraq with an airstrike in Bagh­dad last month. The Jan. 3 strike also fu­eled a wave of out­rage among Iraq’s Shi­ite lead­er­ship and in­ten­si­fied de­mands that Amer­i­can troops leave the coun­try.

Since then, Iraqi lead­ers have scaled back the saber­rat­tling rhetoric. But be­hind closed doors, the bit­ter­ness has poi­soned the part­ner­ship. The govern­ment told the Iraqi mil­i­tary not to seek U.S. help in op­er­a­tions fight­ing the Is­lamic State group, two se­nior Iraqi mil­i­tary of­fi­cials told The As­so­ci­ated Press — a sign that au­thor­i­ties are se­ri­ous about re­think­ing the strate­gic re­la­tion­ship.

At stake are vi­tal U.S.pro­vided weapons, mil­i­tary tech­nolo­gies and air­craft that have been key in coun­ter­ing the threat of Is­lamic State group mil­i­tants try­ing to make a come­back in north­ern and west­ern Iraq. The prospect of los­ing that help is one rea­son why Iraqi politi­cians have cooled their de­mands for Amer­i­can forces to go im­me­di­ately. Se­nior Iraqi mil­i­tary of­fi­cials op­pose a with­drawal.

“To us the Amer­i­can pres­ence is like the elec­tric­ity net­work in a house,” said a bri­gadier gen­eral sta­tioned in west­ern Iraq, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause he was not autho­rized to speak to me­dia. “If the light is turned off the whole place goes dark.”

In the wake of the U.S. strike that killed Iran’s Gen. Qassem Soleimani and a se­nior Iraqi mili­tia com­man­der, Iraq’s parliament passed a non­bind­ing res­o­lu­tion de­mand­ing the govern­ment force out the Amer­i­cans. Tens of thou­sands marched in an anti-U.S. rally in­spired by a rad­i­cal cleric, while Iraq’s out­go­ing premier, Adel Ab­dulMahdi, openly stated that the troops must go.

Amer­i­can forces had to halt joint op­er­a­tions with Iraqi mil­i­tary against IS af­ter the strike, a pause that would last for three weeks. In the in­terim, the U.S. troops for­ti­fied bases against po­ten­tial re­tal­i­a­tion by Iran or Iraqi Shi­ite mili­tias — like the new tower and beefed-up bar­ri­cades at a base vis­ited re­cently by the AP in the north­ern Iraqi city of Ir­bil.

About 5,200 U.S. sol­diers are sta­tioned in Iraqi bases to sup­port lo­cal troops fight­ing IS mil­i­tants, part of a larger in­ter­na­tional coali­tion in­vited by the Iraqi govern­ment in 2014.

But since then, West­ern of­fi­cials say Iraqi au­thor­i­ties have taken no con­crete mea­sures to has­ten a with­drawal plan.

“I’d say with vir­tu­ally all of the Shi­ite political party lead­ers there’s been be­hind closed doors and in pri­vate meet­ings a much more thought­ful ap­proach on how they deal with this and a de­sire on their part to main­tain a re­la­tion­ship and a coali­tion part­ner­ship that they re­gard as es­sen­tial for Iraq,” said a U.S. of­fi­cial, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity in line with reg­u­la­tions.

In a Cab­i­net ses­sion,

Ab­dul-Mahdi said it was up to the next govern­ment to see through Parliament’s res­o­lu­tion. Prime Min­is­ter­des­ig­nate Mo­hammed Allawi, a for­mer com­mu­ni­ca­tions min­is­ter, has not made his pol­icy known.

West­ern diplo­mats were told that Iraq had formed a com­mit­tee to study the is­sue of Amer­ica’s troop pres­ence, but two Iraqi of­fi­cials said there was no of­fi­cial sign off from Ab­dul-Mahdi for­mally cre­at­ing such a com­mit­tee. James Jef­frey, spe­cial en­voy for the global coali­tion to de­feat IS, said, speak­ing of the com­mit­tee, “there has not been any real en­gage­ment,” in re­marks to re­porters in Wash­ing­ton on Jan. 23.

Wash­ing­ton has re­sponded to Iraq’s re­quests to ini­ti­ate troop with­drawals with blunt re­fusal, even threat­en­ing sanc­tions that could crip­ple Iraq’s econ­omy.

In­stead of di­rectly push­ing for U.S. with­drawal,

Iraq’s govern­ment ap­pears to be qui­etly dis­tanc­ing it­self on the ground. Though the U.S. an­nounced joint op­er­a­tions against IS had re­sumed, Iraq has been un­clear. The Iraqi mil­i­tary an­nounced the end of the pause on Jan. 30, but a mil­i­tary spokesman re­scinded the claim in re­marks to state tele­vi­sion. It was not fol­lowed up with a clar­i­fi­ca­tion. On at least two oc­ca­sions in Jan­uary, U.S. of­fi­cials said they ex­pected the pause would be lifted im­mi­nently.

Two Iraqi mil­i­tary of­fi­cials and a mili­tia com­man­der said last week that the govern­ment told its mil­i­tary not to seek as­sis­tance from the U.S.-led coali­tion in anti-IS op­er­a­tions and to min­i­mize co­op­er­a­tion. The three spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause they were not autho­rized to talk to the press.

“Un­til now, we have not asked the Amer­i­cans to pro­vide as­sis­tance, we rely on our ca­pa­bil­i­ties to pur­sue IS el­e­ments. The pres­ence of the Amer­i­cans in the joint op­er­a­tions is only for­mal,” a se­nior mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial told The As­so­ci­ated Press.

An­other of the of­fi­cials, a com­man­der in Iraq’s elite U.S.-trained Counter-Ter­ror­ism Ser­vices in west­ern An­bar prov­ince, said some train­ing con­tin­ues, but “as for mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions and car­ry­ing out op­er­a­tions, there is no sup­port.”

A full-scale U.S. with­drawal would bring a ma­jor set­back in Iraqi ca­pa­bil­i­ties to fight IS that Iraqi mil­i­tary of­fi­cers ac­knowl­edge. The U.S. with­drew from the coun­try in 2011, only for the Iraqi mil­i­tary to col­lapse in the face of the 2014 blitz by IS that over­ran the north and west. As a re­sult, the govern­ment in­vited the Amer­i­cans back.

“The Iraqi forces present in west­ern Iraq need con­tin­u­ous air sup­port and lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port,” said the CTS of­fi­cial. “Th­ese are pro­vided to us by coali­tion forces, es­pe­cially the U.S. If they are taken out, we will be par­a­lyzed.”

“The bat­tle against IS is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly tech­no­log­i­cal, and we don’t own any of th­ese tech­nolo­gies. Only the Amer­i­cans do,” said a se­nior army in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial.

The Iraqis also rely on U.S. mil­i­tary ex­per­tise to main­tain their Amer­i­can­made F-16 fighter air­craft.

Iraq’s Kur­dish and the ma­jor­ity of Sunni fac­tions op­pose an Amer­i­can with­drawal. Many Sun­nis con­sider the U.S. pres­ence as a bul­wark against both IS and Ira­nian power.

“If the Amer­i­cans go out then we will be at­tacked by ev­ery­one, and by ev­ery­one I mean IS, the govern­ment, the mili­tias and the par­ties,” said Abu Ah­mad, a gro­cery shop owner in the Old City of Mo­sul, which was over­run by IS in 2014. “It is the U.S. that keeps them away from swal­low­ing Mo­sul.”

KHALID MO­HAMMED/AP 2018

Iraq has told its mil­i­tary not to seek help from U.S.-led coali­tion forces in op­er­a­tions against the Is­lamic State group.

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