U.S. ready to back Iran with airstrikes against ISIS

Nancy A. Youssef reports: The U.S.-led coalition is preparing to expand its air strike campaign into the city of Tikrit where Iraqi forces, backed by Iranians, have stalled in their efforts to reclaim the hometown of Saddam Hussein from the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

Two U.S. officials told The Daily Beast that the United States is awaiting a formal request from the Iraqi government for the strikes. Once they receive that request, it could be only a matter of days before the attacks begin.

“The preparatory work is probably already done. The [U.S. military] has started to bring in more assets for a Tikrit air support campaign,” an adviser to the U.S. government tasked with monitoring and engaging with Iraqi officials told The Daily Beast. “Unless there is an impediment on the Iraqi side, and I don’t see it happening, the campaign could begin within days.” [Continue reading…]

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The many names of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

Ali Hashem writes: Even to those who have hunted him and followed his every move, Islamic State (IS) Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi remains a mystery.

“Before anything I want to understand why he became like this, why an academic would make such a choice and how he feels toward the thousands of people he has killed around the Middle East. Then I’ll make sure he gets punished,” Maj. Bakr (a pseudonym), a member of the elite Iraqi counterterrorist unit the Falcon Brigade, said.

Iraqi forces had him in their crosshairs on Nov. 8, 2014, but an airstrike came too late and a wounded Baghdadi, 44, managed to slip across the Syrian border. The self-styled caliph now travels secretly and has avoided the public eye, apart from his infamous Friday sermons at a mosque in Mosul. While seclusion has only raised his profile, Baghdadi’s origins remain wreathed in more mystery than his movements. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS in Iraq siphon state pay

The Wall Street Journal reports: Islamic State militants are skimming tens of millions of dollars a month from salaries paid to Iraqi government employees in occupied areas such as Mosul, and Baghdad continues to send the cash to maintain local support.

The group is using the money to fund operations, U.S. officials say, underlining the delicate balancing act U.S. and Iraqi governments face in what they know is a hearts-and-minds campaign against Islamic State ahead of a military operation to retake Mosul, for which U.S. officials are training Iraqi troops.

U.S. defense officials say U.S.-led strikes have put pressure on Islamic State, hurting its command-and-control operations, but they remain cautious about the near-term prospects of retaking Mosul and other territory under the group’s firm control.

A lack of desirable options has put U.S. officials in an awkward position, forced to choose between the goal of denying funds to Islamic State and the goal of persuading Sunnis to back the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. [Continue reading…]

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Iraq opts for consolidation over advance in Tikrit battle against ISIS

The New York Times reports: As a small force of Islamic State militants holds out in parts of Tikrit for a fourth week, Iraqi forces have been forced to shift tactics, officials say: Rather than storming in to clear the city at any cost, the security forces are trying to seal off the area and begin preparing for even more challenging battles to the west and north.

The Iraqi forces’ progress has put them closer to the doorstep of Nineveh Province, where the city of Mosul looms as the most important battle against the Islamic State. But the hard lessons of the Tikrit offensive, with a heavy cost in casualties for the Shiite militiamen and soldiers involved, have Iraqi officials thinking more cautiously about their next steps.

To that end, officials say, their next goal will be securing the western province of Anbar, in part to keep Islamic State fighters there from ambushing and harassing the main Iraqi force to the east. [Continue reading…]

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Kurds accuse Iran of sending 30,000 troops to fight in Iraq

Al Jazeera: Kurdish authorities in Iraq have accused Iran of sending 30,000 soldiers and military experts to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.

Shakhawan Abdullah, the head of the Iraq’s parliamentary security and defence committee, told Al Jazeera on Sunday that Iranian soldiers were operating in a number of Iraqi cities and fighting on Iraqi soil.

Abdullah said Iran’s presence went beyond military advisers and experts, and that Iranians were fighting under the banner of the Popular Mobilisation Forces.

The Popular Mobilisation Forces is an umbrella organisation of Shia armed groups composed of around 100,000 fighters.

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Petraeus returns to Iraq

Retired General David Petraeus, who commanded U.S. troops during the 2007-2008 surge, was back in Iraq last week for the first time in more than three years.

In his most expansive comments yet on the latest crisis in Iraq and Syria, he answered written questions from The Washington Post’s Liz Sly:

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.

These militia returned to the streets of Iraq in response to a fatwa by Shia leader Grand Ayatollah Sistani at a moment of extreme danger. And they prevented the Islamic State from continuing its offensive into Baghdad. Nonetheless, they have, in some cases, cleared not only Sunni extremists but also Sunni civilians and committed atrocities against them. Thus, they have, to a degree, been both part of Iraq’s salvation but also the most serious threat to the all-important effort of once again getting the Sunni Arab population in Iraq to feel that it has a stake in the success of Iraq rather than a stake in its failure. 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.

Beyond Iraq, I am also profoundly worried about the continuing meltdown of Syria, which is a geopolitical Chernobyl. Until it is capped, it is going to continue to spew radioactive instability and extremist ideology over the entire region.

Any strategy to stabilize the region thus needs to take into account the challenges in both Iraq and Syria. It is not sufficient to say that we’ll figure them out later.

What went wrong in Iraq?

There was certainly a sense in Washington that Iraq should be put in our rearview mirror, that whatever happened here was somewhat peripheral to our national security and that we could afford to redirect our attention to more important challenges. Much of this sentiment was very understandable given the enormous cost of our efforts in Iraq and the endless frustrations that our endeavor here encountered.

In retrospect, a similar attitude existed with respect to the civil war in Syria — again, a sense that developments in Syria constituted a horrible tragedy to be sure, but a tragedy at the outset, at least, that did not seem to pose a threat to our national security.

But in hindsight, few, I suspect, would contend that our approach was what it might — or should — have been. In fact, if there is one lesson that I hope we’ve learned from the past few years, it is that there is a linkage between the internal conditions of countries in the Middle East and our own vital security interests.

The current Iranian regime is not our ally in the Middle East. It is ultimately part of the problem, not the solution. The more the Iranians are seen to be dominating the region, the more it is going to inflame Sunni radicalism and fuel the rise of groups like the Islamic State. While the U.S. and Iran may have convergent interests in the defeat of Daesh, our interests generally diverge. The Iranian response to the open hand offered by the U.S. has not been encouraging.

Iranian power in the Middle East is thus a double problem. It is foremost problematic because it is deeply hostile to us and our friends. But it is also dangerous because, the more it is felt, the more it sets off reactions that are also harmful to our interests — Sunni radicalism and, if we aren’t careful, the prospect of nuclear proliferation as well.

You have had some interactions with Qassem Soleimani in the past. Could you tell us about those?

In the spring of 2008, Iraqi and coalition forces engaged in what emerged as a decisive battle between the Iraqi Security Forces and the Iranian-supported Shiite militias.

In the midst of the fight, I received word from a very senior Iraqi official that Qassem Soleimani had given him a message for me. When I met with the senior Iraqi, he conveyed the message: “General Petraeus, you should be aware that I, Qassem Soleimani, control Iran’s policy for Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan.” The point was clear: He owned the policy and the region, and I should deal with him.

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ISIS using IEDs in staggering numbers across Iraq

Mike Giglio reports: ISIS is using improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, in staggering numbers across its fronts in Iraq. Experts say the weapon has never been used on this scale before — it is “unprecedented,” says Jonah Leff of the arms-tracking firm Conflict Armament Research, and “a revolution in their use and deployment.”

IEDs were the weapon of choice for Iraqi insurgents during the U.S. occupation — and their use by ISIS now is playing a crucial role as the war against them reaches a pivotal moment in Iraq. While U.S. warplanes pound the militants, they face multipronged assaults from local forces: the Kurds, Iraqi troops, and Iran-backed militia. New offensives countrywide have been billed as preludes to a battle for the northern city of Mosul, the prize of ISIS’s summer onslaught and the Iraqi heart of its self-styled caliphate.

The offensives span from Kirkuk in the north to the edge of Anbar province west of Baghdad and the city of Tikrit, where some 20,000 militia and Iraqi soldiers are engaged in the largest operation against ISIS to date. All have slowed amid the havoc wreaked by IEDs. Fighters from each of the forces battling ISIS say that — like U.S. troops before them — they suffer most of their casualties from the bombs. [Continue reading…]

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Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric urges more professionalism in fight against ISIS

Reuters reports: Iraq’s most important Shi’ite religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called on Friday for greater professionalism and planning by government forces and allied militias in fighting Islamic State insurgents.

Sistani, who speaks for millions of Iraqis and has a worldwide following, also urged greater participation of Sunni residents in Islamic State-controlled areas of Salahuddin and Anbar provinces in the fight.

In Salahuddin, Iraqi security forces and mainly Shi’ite militia are fighting to dislodge the insurgents from Saddam Hussein’s hometown, Tikrit, which they overran last summer.

Some local Sunni tribes are supporting the efforts to retake Tikrit, where government and allied forces have not made any advances since last Friday. [Continue reading…]

Nancy A. Youssef adds: Iraqi politicians and military commanders have said repeatedly the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s grip on the city of Tikrit was about to end in the face of an overwhelming Iraqi military and militia offensive.

Just last week, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi reportedly declared that victory was near and “achieved totally by Iraqi hands.” And in an interview with ABC’s This Week that aired March 8, the prime minister said the forces’ advances were “ahead of planning.”

But two Pentagon officials told The Daily Beast on Thursday that the fall of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s hometown was at least two weeks away, as the campaign now is “stalled.” As Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Thursday, the Iraqi forces have not yet reached the center of the city. [Continue reading…]

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Iraqi offensive for Tikrit stalls as casualties mount

The Washington Post reports: Iraqi forces’ operation to retake the city of Tikrit has stalled as troops suffer heavy casualties at the hands of Islamic State militants, raising concerns about whether the pro-government fighters are ready for major offensives.

After two days of little activity on the battlefield, Iraq’s interior minister, Mohammed al-Ghabban, confirmed Monday that the offensive has “temporarily stopped.” The steady flow of coffins arriving in Iraq’s Shiite holy city of Najaf suggests a reason for the pause; cemetery workers say as many as 60 war dead have been arriving each day.

Since last week, Iraqi forces have hemmed in the Sunni militants in Tikrit, claiming control of the majority of the former Islamic State stronghold. But the operation has come at a cost, with soldiers saying the fight has been tougher than expected. As the momentum has slowed, some Iraqi officials have begun to publicly call for U.S.-led air support. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS is losing, but no one is winning

Aron Lund details the many setbacks ISIS has encountered since August 2014, but he goes on to write: The Islamic State is losing, but that does not mean that it is going to fold and disappear.

First of all, despite this long string of defeats, the Islamic State has also made progress, albeit on a lesser scale, in places like western Iraq, eastern Homs, and the Syrian desert. There is still low-hanging fruit to be picked in war-torn Syria and, for all its recent victories, the Iraqi government is staring into the barrel of economic disaster due to tumbling oil prices. Further afield, there are plenty of soft targets in Libya and Lebanon, not to mention the mouthwatering prospects that jihadis see in Jordan, Egypt and, apparently, Nigeria.

Nor should one underestimate the ability of the Islamic State to adapt to adverse circumstances. It is a flexible and lethal force and it knows what it is up against. Its top leaders have about a decade of hard-earned experience and are surely among the world’s most skilled practitioners of guerrilla war under hostile aerial supremacy. The United States was not able to decisively break Sunni jihadism in Iraq while occupying the country with 140,000 soldiers, and it will be even harder without them. And even though a number of measures have been taken to police borders, air traffic, and international bank transfers, foreign supporters in the Middle East and Europe will continue to provide the Islamic State with a hard core of fanatic volunteer fighters, suicide bombers, and financiers.

Most importantly, it must be remembered that the Islamic State is a product of the Iraqi and Syrian conflicts, not their cause. As long as the overall sectarian conflict continues, the Islamic State will continue to find willing recruits in deprived and brutalized Sunni Arab regions where becoming a holy warrior may be the only career choice available and where few community leaders see any hope of peaceful coexistence with the authoritarian rulers of Damascus and Baghdad. [Continue reading…]

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Why the strategy in Iraq and Syria is failing

Anthony Cordesman writes: One of the ironies of a steadily more partisan Washington is that its politicians and policymakers continue to call for “strategy” without looking beyond the military dimension. One way to lose a war is to lose sight of the objective, and there seems to be an open contest between the administration and the Congress to see who can do the best job of ignoring the objective.

The key question in both Iraq and in Syria – and in what is far too often treated as a “war against ISIL” – is how do you bring any meaningful stability to either country? Military victories are at best a means to that end and can actually make things worse if they are not tied to a set of grand strategic goals.

It is important to seriously degrade the Islamic State – regardless of whether one wants to call it ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh. A violent extremist protostate not only threatens the region immediately around it, it threatens to destabilize the Islamic world and spill over into terrorist attacks outside. Even total defeat of the Islamic State, however, will scarcely end the threat of jihadist violence or put an end to the divisions inside Iraq and Syria that helped empower the Islamic State in the first place. [Continue reading…]

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Tikrit offensive put on hold

Reuters reports: Iraq said on Monday it had put its Tikrit offensive on hold and senior officials called for more air strikes to dislodge Islamic State militants who have laid explosives across Saddam Hussein’s home city and still hold its central districts.

The offensive, the largest yet against insurgents who swept through northern Iraq in June, has been stalled for four days after Iraqi security forces and mainly Shi’ite militia pushed into Tikrit last week.

They have struggled to gain further ground against the militants who are holed up in a vast complex of palaces built when Saddam was in power.

Military officials in Tikrit said there was no fighting on Monday in the city that was home to more than 250,000 people before it was overrun last year.

Government forces are in control of most of the northern Qadisiya district as well as the southern and western outskirts of the city, trapping the militants in an area bounded by the river that runs through Tikrit. Though Iraqi forces and allied militiamen may have the insurgents in a chokehold, officials are increasingly citing air power as necessary to drive out the remaining insurgents. [Continue reading…]

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Iraqi Kurds say ISIS used chlorine gas against them

Reuters: Iraqi Kurdish authorities said on Saturday they had evidence that Islamic State had used chlorine gas as a chemical weapon against their peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq in January.

The Security Council of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region said in a statement to Reuters that the peshmerga had taken soil and clothing samples after an Islamic State car bombing attempt on Jan. 23.

It said laboratory analysis showed “the samples contained levels of chlorine that suggested the substance was used in weaponized form.” The Kurdish allegation could not be independently confirmed.

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Signs of Iraqi national unity begin to tone down the sectarian character of the fight against ISIS

The New York Times reports: Iraqi government forces and allied militias continued on Friday to battle Islamic State militants who defended their remaining positions in the city of Tikrit with snipers and roadside bombs.

As officials called for unity against the militant group, which swept into much of Iraq’s north and west last year, and declared that the fight was an Iraqi national objective, rather than a Shiite or Iranian one, new factions showed their readiness to join the conflict, albeit in relatively small numbers.

That signaled not only a broadening of the Iraqi fight against the Islamic State, but also probably an expansion of the maneuvering by rival groups to share a measure of credit for an expected victory and to position themselves to take part in the even more crucial battle farther north for Mosul, the self-declared capital of the Islamic State.

Around 700 fighters loyal to the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr arrived to take part in the operation south of Tikrit, joining a force of more than 30,000 pro-government fighters, two-thirds of them members of a mainly Shiite militia known as popular mobilization forces.

And in the southern city of Basra on Thursday, a new Sunni militia organized by the religious establishment declared it was joining the popular mobilization effort, officials said.

Kurdish pesh merga and Sunni tribal fighters were continuing on Friday to advance on Islamic State territory from the northern city of Kirkuk, military officials said, on a front that would also be important in the battle for Mosul.

Mr. Sadr’s loyalists had sat out recent battles after he said he was “freezing” their participation, in part because of allegations of atrocities committed by Shiite militias in Diyala and Anbar Provinces after driving out Islamic State militants.

But last week, the cleric called on his militias, known as the Peace Brigades, to prepare to mobilize for possible participation in a campaign to take back Mosul. He declared that they had a better reputation than other militias and that their participation would tone down the sectarian flavor of the fight. [Continue reading…]

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Pro-government forces tighten their control over Tikrit

The Washington Post reports: Iraqi troops clashed with Islamic State militants in the northern city of Tikrit on Friday, as pro-government forces tightened their grip on the extremist stronghold, officials said. But tensions flared between security forces and locals in the area, adding to fears of intensified strains in this deeply polarized country.

Pro-government troops — the bulk of whom are Iranian-backed Shiite paramilitaries — took over most of Tikrit this week following a mammoth offensive, officials said. The assault marked the first major push by largely Shiite forces into Iraq’s Sunni heartland, where the jihadists had seized large areas. The fall of Tikrit is a substantial blow to the extremists, whose raison d’etre is capturing land to build an Islamic caliphate.

Officials said Friday that the battle in Tikrit would likely extend into next week, as security forces searched for militants and dismantled improvised explosives planted by the jihadists. Security officials had set no time frame for the return of civilians to Tikrit or surrounding areas, even where Shiite militias were firmly in control, officials said. Already there were reports of arbitrary arrests of residents who had not fled the fighting. [Continue reading…]

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250 Iraqi Sunnis join Iranian-backed Shiite militia to battle ISIS

AFP reports: Wearing a camouflage uniform with militia patches and a green headband, Nawar Mohammed is the image of an Iraqi Shiite fighter except for one detail: he is Sunni.

Mohammed is one of some 250 Sunni residents of Al-Alam who joined Asaib Ahl al-Haq, an Iranian-backed Shiite militia with a fearsome reputation for kidnappings and killings targeting their community, to battle the Islamic State group after it seized their town.

It would once have been all but unthinkable for a member of Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority to join a Shiite militia, but opposition to IS, which overran large areas north and west of Baghdad last June, is transcending deep-seated sectarian divisions.

“The whole world is surprised by this — it’s the first time in the history of Asaib that they formed a Sunni unit,” said Mohammed, standing with a Kalashnikov assault rifle hanging at his side.

“Asaib trained us, and we became part of Asaib,” he said.

“Asaib, Sunni or Shiite, there is no difference — these circumstances united Iraq,” Mohammed said. “God willing, there will not be any more sectarianism.”

The formation of the unit, which some call “Asaib al-Alam,” is a positive sign and its fighters seem genuine when praising Asaib Ahl al-Haq. [Continue reading…]

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CIA director suggests Iraq functions as interlocutor in U.S.-Iran fight against ISIS

The Guardian reports: The director of the CIA came the closest of any US official so far to acknowledging cooperation between the US and Iran in their current war against the Islamic State in Iraq.

Asked during a Council on Foreign Relations appearance on Friday afternoon if the US was formally coordinating its airstrikes in Iraq with Iranian forces and proxies on the ground, CIA director John Brennan did not bat away the notion, as Obama administration officials typically do.

Instead, Brennan suggested that such coordination is laundered through the Iraqi government, Washington and Tehran’s mutual partner – something widely suspected as the Iraqi military and Shia militias attempt to claw back the city of Tikrit from Isis.

“There’s an alignment of some interests between ourselves and Iran, clearly, in terms of what Isil [Isis] has done there,” Brennan told moderator Charlie Rose. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS still on the attack, despite internal strife and heavy losses

The New York Times reports: The Islamic State is facing growing dissension among its rank-and-file fighters and struggling to govern towns and villages it has seized, but the militant Sunni group is still managing to launch attacks and expand its ideological reach outside of Iraq and Syria, senior American officials said.

In the seven months since allied warplanes in the American-led air campaign began bombing select Islamic State targets, the Sunni militancy, while marginally weaker, is holding its own, senior defense and intelligence officials said.

Pentagon officials expressed only cautious optimism on Thursday after the Islamic State lost much of the central Iraqi city of Tikrit following more than a week of fierce fighting, warning that it would be as difficult for Iraqi forces to hold the city as it was to liberate it. And even as the militants had a last stand in Tikrit, Islamic State fighters were mounting one of the fiercest assaults in months in the city of Ramadi, west of Baghdad.

But in recent months tensions have become apparent inside the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh. The troubles stem from new military and financial pressures and from the growing pains of a largely decentralized organization trying to hold together what it views as a nascent state while integrating thousands of foreign fighters with Iraqi and Syrian militants. [Continue reading…]

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