Even with potential U.S. airstrikes, the Iraqi government faces an uphill struggle to defeat Sunni militants who now threaten the integrity of the state, U.S. military and intelligence officials said.
The main insurgent group, an Al-Qaeda offshoot known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) now controls most of a “central swath” of Iraq, is “solidifying gains” and poses “a legitimate threat to Baghdad,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Defense Department spokesman, told reporters in a briefing at the Pentagon.
The militants “are killing and maiming, but they’re also grabbing ground,” Kirby said. “They are behaving like an organized force.”
But ISIS may jeopardize some of its gains if it overreaches by advancing to Baghdad and beyond, Shiite-majority areas hostile to the Sunni insurgency, according to an intelligence official who briefed reporters yesterday on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
ISIS’ advance threatens Iraqi military control of the large Balad air base northwest of Baghdad, the intelligence official said.
A small contingent of U.S. forces has arrived in Iraq to gather intelligence for possible U.S. airstrikes and establish an operations center in Baghdad, Kirby said. Forty troops already stationed at the U.S. Embassy have begun the new assessment mission, and 90 more from the Middle East region have arrived in Baghdad, bringing to 130 the number of personnel involved, Kirby said.
The U.S. began conducting regular surveillance flights over Iraq with both manned and drone aircraft on June 13 at the request of the Iraqi government, according to the Pentagon. Now 30 to 35 such flights are conducted daily.
The intelligence official wouldn’t comment on assessments about U.S. military options, such as the airstrikes sought by Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. The official also wouldn’t comment on whether ISIS has obtained weapons that would threaten U.S. warplanes conducting airstrikes.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Baghdad and Irbil, the Kurdish regional capital, this week to press for a political solution.
U.S. airstrikes alone won’t change the outcome, Kerry said in a BBC interview. “There may be military action, but there has to be a political solution that deals with empowering the people in the communities where ISIS is today to be prepared to take them on,” he said.
His remarks reflect the intelligence official’s assessment that a core group of about 3,000 ISIS fighters would not be so successful were it not for the anger among many Iraqi Sunnis who don’t necessarily share ISIS’ declared goal of establishing a strict Islamic caliphate.
Obama has authorized as many as 300 troops to be sent to Iraq as advisers, while ruling out a ground combat role. It will take two to three weeks to complete initial assessments of the Iraqi military’s capability to combat the Sunni militants, Kirby said.
The U.S. military advisers are being sent to assess the strength of the Iraqi army, whose troops in some cases fled from advancing militants, and which units are salvageable, according to a U.S. military official familiar with the mission’s planning who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss classified matters.
They also are determining whether U.S. airstrikes are possible, including whether targets provided by the Iraqis can be trusted and aren’t aimed at settling scores in the country’s sectarian and ethnic feuds, the official said. In addition, the advisers are trying to determine whether ISIS units can be distinguished from civilians, tribal militias and Iraqi government forces accurately enough to permit the use of air power.
In particular, the official said, the U.S. wants to avoid hitting Sunni tribesmen who now are fighting alongside ISIS but previously were allied with U.S. forces during the “Sunni Awakening” against Islamic extremists. Any hope that the Central Intelligence Agency, which once paid some of the tribal leaders for their support, can rebuild its relationships with them would be lost if U.S. airstrikes hit the wrong targets, a second U.S. intelligence official said.
The intelligence official said the U.S. doesn’t consider ISIS an affiliate of Al-Qaeda. That presents a potential legal hurdle to ordering airstrikes against the group, said Christopher Swift, an adjunct professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program and an international lawyer with Foley & Lardner LLP.
The 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force against terrorists “wouldn’t cover such strikes because ISIS isn’t part of Al-Qaeda and wasn’t involved in planning, authorizing or committing the 9/11 terrorist attacks” as the authorization law requires, Swift said.
Instead, he said, “the president would be forced to rely on his authority as commander in chief without the benefit of Congress’s formal backing.” Under the War Powers Act, Obama would have 48 hours after ordering any strikes to notify Congress and 60 days to continue them until Congress could intervene, he said.