U.S. can only encourage Iraq’s leader as ISIS seizes Mosul


McClatchy Washington Bureau

The American military lost at least 200 troops in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, during the American occupation of Iraq, almost all of them to attacks by what today is known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

But there was little the United States could do on Tuesday as hundreds of insurgents from that same organization swept through Mosul, quickly capturing the airport, three military bases, the central bank vault and a prison, where it released 3,000 detainees, most of whom were ISIS members swept up in earlier counterterrorism campaigns.

U.S. officials were quick to express solidarity with the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, who was elected to his post originally during the American occupation and whose administration the U.S. has backed with weapons shipments and military training. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United States was working closely with the Maliki government, and Brett McGurk, the State Department’s top diplomat for Iraq and Iran, pointed out via Twitter that U.S. and Iraqi soldiers “have suffered and bled together, and we will help in time of crisis.”

But the nature of that help was perhaps best encapsulated in the response of Pentagon spokesman Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby that made it clear that the U.S. was unlikely to become directly involved in Iraq’s battle with ISIS. “This is for the Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi government to deal with,” Kirby said.

In comments Tuesday, U.S. officials left no room for direct involvement in the conflict there, where ISIS, analysts said, had demonstrated that it could successfully and simultaneously control parts of two major Iraqi cities, while battling multiple forces inside Syria, including the Lebanese militant organization Hezbollah and al Qaida’s Nusra Front.

Worst-case scenarios were common as observers wondered if ISIS could maintain its control of Mosul and Fallujah, the scene of two fierce Marine Corps offensives against ISIS a decade ago, while trying to push into places like Tikrit and Samarra, two central Iraqi cities. Last month, ISIS captured parts of Samarra only to retreat.

The performance of the Iraqi military at Mosul was another source of embarrassment for American officials, who had spent billions of dollars training and equipping the Iraqi military, only to have its soldiers shed their uniforms and flee before the ISIS attackers.

That came as no surprise to Douglas A. Ollivant, who advised both the Obama and the George W. Bush administrations on Iraq after serving two tours of duty there. “The problem is that we trained the Iraqi army to handle a local insurgency. We did not teach them how to deal with a Hezbollah-like, elite paramilitary force,” Ollivant said.

With control of two major Iraqi cities, ISIS could undeniably claim it is a state, with a defined territory that stretches across Syria and Iraq, a justice system and an army, Ollivant said.

Others, however, were not yet ready to grant ISIS so much credit. One U.S. counterterrorism official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said ISIS “still has significant weaknesses.”

“It has shown little ability to govern effectively, is generally unpopular, and has no sway outside the Sunni community in either Iraq or Syria,” the official told McClatchy.

The United States has provided a $14 billion foreign military aid package to Iraq that includes F-16 fighter jets, Apache attack helicopters and M-16 rifles. Despite the lack of a U.S. presence in Iraq, U.S. training is ongoing; an exercise is scheduled to take place Tuesday in Jordan between Iraqi and U.S. special forces. At least two F-16s are set to arrive in Iraq by fall, and six Apaches will be leased for training later this year, Pentagon officials said.

U.S. officials were surprised by the speed with which Mosul fell. Until the most recent attack, U.S. officials believed ISIS’ grip was limited in geographic scope even as it moved between Iraq and Syria with impunity. But the Mosul attack demonstrated that ISIS “sets the timing. Everybody is reacting to them,” said Jessica Lewis, a research director at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.

The Mosul takeover also will have an impact in Syria. On Tuesday, several videos posted online showed ISIS fighters driving U.S.-supplied equipment into Syria.

“They are rearming and refitting their forces with U.S. equipment,” Lewis said.

Two U.S. officials told McClatchy it is unclear how much U.S.-supplied equipment ended up in ISIS hands. So far, they said, there’s no evidence that ISIS has added such significant equipment to its arsenal as Apache helicopters or Hellfire missiles.

But what limits U.S. intervention the most is the divisive political environment in Iraq, where Sunnis and Shiites continue to distrust one another. Many Sunnis is places like Fallujah and Mosul have passively supported ISIS and have accused Maliki of fueling sectarian tensions.

When asked whether the sectarian rhetoric of Maliki’s Shiite-dominated administration pushes marginalized Sunnis closer to ISIS, Psaki replied that all Iraqi leaders – including Maliki – could do more to work toward a unified political vision.

Hannah Allam of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

Read more World Wires stories from the Miami Herald

  • Snowden: NSA collects mass data on New Zealanders

    Former National Security Agency systems analyst turned leaker Edward Snowden says the NSA is collecting mass surveillance data on New Zealanders through its XKeyscore program and has set up a facility in the South Pacific nation to tap into vast amounts of data.

An Air France plane is parked on the tarmac at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport in Roissy, near Paris, Monday, Sept. 15, 2014. At least half of Air France flights around the world were canceled Monday as pilots kicked off a weeklong strike, angry that the airline is shifting jobs and operations to a low-cost carrier to better keep up with competition.

    Air France strike as Europe faces low-cost shakeup

    At least half of Air France flights around the world were canceled Monday as pilots kicked off a weeklong strike, angry that the company is shifting jobs and operations to a low-cost carrier to better keep up with rivals.

FILE - This undated file image posted on Aug. 27, 2014, by the Raqqa Media Center of the Islamic State group, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows a fighter of the Islamic State group waving their flag from inside a captured government fighter jet following the battle for the Tabqa air base, in Raqqa. Secretary of State John Kerry is to travel to the Middle East this week, with stops in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, to try to line up support for a coalition to take on the extremist Islamic State group. His trip follows Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s visit on Monday to Turkey to make the same case to Ankara, a regional heavyweight. Kerry will hold talks with officials from Jordan, Turkey and Egypt, as well as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf nations.

    Austria plans to forbid Islamic extremist symbols

    Austria plans to introduce a law banning symbols of the Islamic State group and 18 other extremist groups.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category