Not a rupture, but cracks in the US-Iraqi military alliance
BAGHDAD (AP) – A new watchtower rose above a US military base in northern Iraq, and cranes lifted heavy concrete slabs to reinforce the barricades in reinforced guards. The danger, soldiers there said, did not come from the constellation of militant sleeper cells embedded in the landscape, but further afield in Iran.
US forces in Iraq have been wary of retaliation from Iran or its Shia militia allies since the US killed Iran’s top general in Iraq in an airstrike in Baghdad last month. The January 3 strike also fueled a wave of outrage among Iraqi Shiite leaders and intensified demands for US troops to leave the country.
Since then, the Iraqi leadership has reduced the rhetoric of the sword. But behind closed doors, bitterness has poisoned the partnership. The government has told the Iraqi military not to seek US assistance in counter ISIS operations, two senior Iraqi military officials told The Associated Press, a sign that authorities are seriously considering to rethink the strategic relationship.
What is at stake are US-supplied weapons, military technology and aircraft that have been critical in countering the threat from ISIS militants trying to make a return to the north and west of the country. Iraq. The prospect of losing this aid is one of the reasons Iraqi politicians have cooled their demands for the immediate departure of US forces. Senior Iraqi military officials oppose a withdrawal.
“For us, the American presence is like the electricity grid of a house,” said a brigadier general stationed in western Iraq, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not allowed to speak to the media. “If the light is off, the whole place becomes dark.”
Following the US strike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and a senior Iraqi militia commander, the Iraqi parliament passed a non-binding resolution demanding that the government oust Americans. Tens of thousands marched in an anti-America rally inspired by a radical cleric, while outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi openly said the troops must leave.
US forces had to halt joint operations with the Iraqi military against ISIS after the strike, a hiatus that would last three weeks. In the meantime, US troops have fortified bases against possible reprisals from Iran or Iraqi Shiite militias – such as the new tower and reinforced barricades of a base recently visited by the PA in the city of Irbil, in northern Iraq.
About 5,200 US troops are stationed at 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 steps to speed up a withdrawal plan.
“I would say that with virtually all of the leaders of Shia political parties there has been behind closed doors and in private meetings a much more thoughtful approach to how they are dealing with this and a desire on their part to maintain a relationship and a coalition partnership that they considered essential for Iraq, ”said an American official, who requested anonymity in accordance with the regulations.
During a Cabinet session, Abdul-Mahdi said it was up to the next government to see through Parliament’s resolution. Prime Minister-designate Mohammed Allawi, a former communications minister, has not made his policy known.
Western diplomats have learned that Iraq has formed a committee to study the issue of the presence of US troops in Iraq, but two Iraqi officials said there was no official endorsement from Abdul-Mahdi formally creating a such committee. James Jeffrey, special envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, said, speaking from the committee, “there has been no real engagement,” in remarks to reporters in Washington on January 23.
Washington has responded to Iraq’s demands to initiate troop withdrawals with a categorical refusal, even threatening sanctions that could cripple the Iraqi economy.
Instead of directly pushing the US withdrawal, the Iraqi government appears to be quietly distancing itself on the ground. Although the United States has announced the resumption of joint operations against ISIS, Iraq has not been clear. The Iraqi military announced the end of the recess on January 30, but a military spokesperson canceled the request in remarks on state television. It was not followed by a clarification. On at least two occasions in January, U.S. officials said they expected the break to be lifted imminently.
Two Iraqi military officials and a militia commander said this week that the government has told its military not to seek help from the US-led coalition in anti-ISIS operations and to play down cooperation. The three spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the press.
“So far we have not asked the Americans to provide assistance, we are relying on our capabilities to prosecute elements of ISIS. The presence of the Americans in joint operations is only formal, ”a senior military intelligence official told The Associated Press.
Another of the officials, a commander of the elite US-trained Iraqi counterterrorism services in the western province of Anbar, said some training was continuing, but “with respect to military operations and the conduct of operations, there is no support “.
No coalition airstrikes have been carried out against ISIS since Soleimani’s murder, coalition spokesman Myles Caggins said. In contrast, 45 strikes were carried out in Iraq in October and November. “The Iraqis have not requested assistance with airstrikes in recent weeks while our operations are on hiatus,” Caggins said.
U.S. Naval General Frank McKenzie, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East, met with Iraqi leaders on Tuesday and acknowledged that joint military operations and training had been curtailed, although he said the forces of US special operations were carrying out certain missions with Iraqi commandos.
“We are still in a period of turbulence. We have a long way to go, ”he said.
A large-scale US withdrawal would result in a major setback in Iraqi capabilities to combat ISIS, which Iraqi military officers recognize. The United States withdrew from the country in 2011, only for the Iraqi military to collapse in the face of the 2014 ISIS blitz that swept north and west. As a result, the government invited Americans to return.
“Iraqi forces in western Iraq need continued air and logistical support,” said the CTS official. “These are provided to us by coalition forces, particularly the United States. If they are removed, we will be paralyzed. ”
“The battle against IS is becoming more and more technological, and we don’t have any of these technologies. Only the Americans do it, ”said a senior military intelligence official.
The Iraqis are also relying on US military expertise to maintain their US-made F-16 fighter jet.
In the March 2019 Pentagon funding rationale for FY2020, the Defense Department said if the requested $ 1.045 billion was not allocated for continued training and equipment against the IS, this would “jeopardize” Iraq’s ability to consolidate the gains made by the coalition, potentially forcing them to “strengthen relations with other state actors” – a reference to Iran.
A September 2018 report to Congress by Inspector General Glen Fine said the Iraqi security forces were “systemically weak” and “years, if not decades away,” from ending reliance on it. screw coalition aid.
Iraqi Kurds and the majority of Sunni factions oppose an American withdrawal. Many Sunnis see the American presence as a bulwark against ISIS and Iranian power.
“If the Americans come out, we will be attacked by everyone, and by everyone, I mean ISIS, the government, the militias and the parties,” said Abu Ahmad, a grocery store owner in the city. old city of Mosul, which was invaded by IS in 2014. “The United States is keeping them from swallowing Mosul.
Associated Press editors Salar Salim in Mosul, Iraq; Mathew Lee in Washington and Lolita C. Baldor, aboard a US military aircraft, contributed to this report.