TIME Military

Obama Deploys Troops to Protect Embassy in Iraq, as American and Iranian Officials Meet

An attempt to de-escalate the crisis and protect U.S. interests

+ READ ARTICLE

President Barack Obama ordered the deployment of up to 275 military personnel “equipped for combat” into Iraq to protect the U.S. embassy in Baghdad on Monday, as American and Iranian diplomats met briefly to discuss whether the two countries can work together to defuse the crisis exploding in Iraq.

Obama informed Congress of the military deployment; the Pentagon said 170 servicemembers are already on the ground, while another 100 are prepared to go in as needed. The Obama Administration has so far resisted Republican calls for airstrikes and more military involvement, while also speaking of the need to protect U.S. interests on the ground. Amid growing violence by Sunni militants from the group ISIS, who have already captured several towns and have their sights set on Baghdad, the State Department on Sunday withdrew some American diplomats from the embassy there to safer locations.

The meeting between American and Iranian diplomats came on the margins of the so-called P5+1 talks in Geneva about ending Iran’s nuclear program, a senior State Department official said. Many Republican lawmakers have opposed engaging with Iran over the Iraq crisis.

“These engagements will not include military coordination or strategic determinations about Iraq’s future over the heads of the Iraqi people,” the State Department official said in a statement. “We will discuss how [ISIS] threatens many countries in the region, including Iran, and the need to support inclusivity in Iraq and refrain from pressing a sectarian agenda.”

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday that Obama would meet with his national-security team Monday evening, after having directed them last week to prepare a range of options for U.S. intervention for him to consider. Obama has ruled out deploying American forces on the ground as part of any effort to counter the offensive , but Administration officials are contemplating other options, including air strikes.

Over the weekend, the Sunni extremist group ISIS claimed credit for massacring Iraqi air force recruits near Tikrit. The Iranian government deployed forces to Iraq over the weekend to bolster the Iraqi government’s defenses. Meanwhile, American officials are pressuring the Iraqi government, headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, to begin reconciliation efforts to ease sectarian tensions.

A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner said Boehner supports the deployment of military personnel but wants Obama to present a broader strategy for Iraq. “The Speaker supports the ongoing steps to secure U.S. personnel and facilities in the midst of a fluid situation, but he still expects a comprehensive strategy to protect America’s national security interests in Iraq,” spokesman Michael Steel said. “We hope the President will offer such a plan in coming days. Too many Americans sacrificed too much to allow Iraq to slip back into chaos.”

MONEY Gas

WATCH: Iraq Conflict Could Lead to Higher Gas Prices

The latest conflict in Iraq — the world's second-largest oil producer — could result in your paying more at the pump for gas.

TIME Iraq

Iranian Intervention in Iraq Would Be Risky

APTOPIX Mideast Iraq
Shiite tribal fighters raise their weapons and chant slogans against the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Basra, Iraq on June 16, 2014. Nabil Al-Jurani—AP

If Iran comes to the assistance of the Shi'ite-dominated Iraqi government it could fan further sectarian violence

As U.S. President Barack Obama considers his limited options in Iraq, the United States is considering holding talks with Iran later this week on how to counter the militant threat. Both the U.S. and Iran have said they will provide qualified military support to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, should he request it, a turn of events that could suddenly see the two foes fighting on the same side. But while such an alignment might improve the relationship between the U.S. and Iran going forward, Iranian military assistance in Iraq carries substantial risks. Done improperly, it could inflame sectarian tensions or even start an all-out war in the region.

The rapid advance of the Sunni militant group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), into Iraq’s Sunni-dominated north was a result partly of local dissatisfaction with the Shi’ite-dominated central government in Baghdad. Iraq’s Sunni minority, which had ruled Iraq for decades until the fall of the Sunni dictator President Saddam Hussein in 2003, still seethes with resentment over what they see as their loss of power and dignity. Many dismiss Maliki as an Iranian stooge, set in place to advance Shi’ite interests in the name of a greater Iranian plot to extend Iran’s influence across the region. “Iranian troops operating in Iraq will confirm everything the Sunnis have always suspected, that the Maliki regime is an extension of Iranian power. So it will become a self-fulfilling dynamic,” warns Peter Harling, Middle East Project Director of the International Crisis Group.

The closer ISIS gets to the Iraqi capital, and the sacred Shi’ite shrine of the Mosque of the Golden Dome in the city of Samarra, the more likely Iran will feel that it has no choice but to intervene. Iranians, says Philip Smyth, an expert on Shi’ite militias at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, sees ISIS “as an existential threat to the Shi’ite population of Iraq, and are trying to grab the bull by the horns.” When ISIS’s predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq, attacked the shrine in 2006 it unleashed a spasm of sectarian violence that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis of both sects, and left more than four million displaced.

But an Iranian military presence would not only alarm Iraqi Sunnis, it would be a major affront to the U.S.’s Sunni allies in the Gulf, like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. “When you start seeing Iranian aircraft, [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] forces on the ground, Iranian advisors training the Iraqi military, it could easily devolve into a regional conflagration,” says Smyth. “It’s not like Riyadh wants to back ISIS, but what are they going to do when they see a mobilization like this, and no other outside force to quell it?”

Baghdad-based independent politician Ali Mehdi Jawad Al-Dabbagh, a former spokesman for the Maliki government, says Iran has an important role to play. “No one should be blocked from helping Iraq, especially not Iran,” he says. But Al-Dabbagh believes that all assistance be funneled through the Iraqi government. He says that accounts of Iranian trainers and troops on the ground in Iraq are “just rumors,” but he does worry about the visible presence of Iranian trained and funded proxy militias in the country. Left to their own devices, and not controlled by the government, they could further provoke Sunnis. Al-Dabbagh believes the militias should be used judicially, for the protection of the Samarra shrine, for example. “The shrine cannot be attacked. That would absolutely ignite a huge sectarian war. So it is in everyone’s interest that the shrine be protected, and I think Sunnis would agree also.”

But Iran’s possible role has already evolved beyond Samarra. ISIS must be stopped, says Smyth. The U.S. may not be willing to intervene militarily, but it may not have a choice. The U.S., he says, cannot afford to let Iran take the lead in stopping ISIS. “Both [Iran and ISIS] are bad for American policy and American interests in the region.” Sectarian war, however, will be bad for all concerned.

TIME White House

The War on Terror Is Over—Long Live the War on Terror

Volunteers, who have joined the Iraqi Army to fight against predominantly Sunni militants from the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, carry weapons during a parade in Al-Fdhiliya district
Volunteers, who have joined the Iraqi Army to fight against predominantly Sunni militants from the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Syria (ISIL), carry weapons during a parade in the streets in Al-Fdhiliya district, eastern Baghdad on June 15, 2014. Thaier Al-Sdani—Reuters

Just last month, Obama was making progress in rolling back extraordinary post-9/11 presidential powers. That was then.

President Barack Obama declared last year that the war on terror, “like all wars, must end,” and as recently as two weeks ago, he seemed to be making progress. Outgoing Senate Armed Services chairman, Carl Levin, had charted a legal path for closing the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay. The White House and Congress were negotiating a replacement for the broadly worded 2001 anti-al Qaeda Authorization for the Use of Military Force. And the President and his aides were talking about having all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by 2016.

In a matter of days, the outlook has changed dramatically, nowhere more so than in Iraq where the al Qaeda-inspired Islamist group ISIS has burst from its stronghold in Anbar province to seize much of the north of the country. Less visibly, the Bergdahl affair has derailed Obama’s Gitmo closure plans as Republicans protest Obama’s release of five senior Taliban officials from the prison. And in Nigeria, Boko Haram’s kidnapping of 200 young girls drove Obama to deploy a U.S. special forces team to help in the hunt.

While the President may have felt a month ago that the end was in sight for many of the special powers America claimed at the start of the war on terror, now he finds a combination of events around the world and at home pushing him to embrace them anew.

The most urgent “war on terror” question for Obama is whether to use force against the advancing assault of ISIS in Iraq, and what authorities to tap if he does. On Friday, Obama declined to announce direct engagement in the unfolding chaos in Iraq, but said instead that he had “asked my national security team to prepare a range of other options that could help support Iraq’s security forces” and that he would be “reviewing those options in the days ahead.” Over the weekend, he moved the U.S. aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush to the Persian Gulf in preparation for possible airstrikes against ISIS’s forces.

If Obama does use force, he will be relying on two authorizations from Congress, both passed at the height of President George W. Bush’s expansion of Presidential powers in the so-called “Global War on Terror.” The first would be the October 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which gave the president broad powers to attack al Qaeda and its allies anywhere around the world. Obama had been negotiating a more limited replacement for that law.

The other is the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force in Iraq, which gave Bush the authority to “defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq.” As Harvard’s Jack Goldsmith wrote Friday on Lawfare, “It is not at all hard to interpret this statute to authorize the President to use force today to defend U.S. national security from the threat posed by the [ISIS]-induced collapse of Iraq.” Either way, the use of force in Iraq would reinforce extraordinary powers in the war against terrorism, rather than diminish them.

Obama’s other major setback in his effort to end the war on terror came with the release of U.S. POW Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban leaders held at Guantanamo Bay. Obama released the five men without providing the 30-day notice Congress insisted it be given before Gitmo prisoners were repatriated. In the outcry afterwards, Republican members of Congress made it clear they would block the increased authority Sen. Carl Levin had proposed Obama be given to transfer prisoners next year.

When the current crises abate, it may be possible for the president to resume conversations with Congress over how to adjust and perhaps curtail extraordinary post-9/11 powers. But for now, he and the country seem headed in the other direction.

TIME diplomacy

U.S. May Engage Iran in Talks Over Iraq Crisis

An image uploaded on June 14, 2014 on the jihadist website Welayat Salahuddin allegedly shows militants of ISIS capturing dozens of Iraqi security forces members prior to transporting them to an unknown location in the Salaheddin province ahead of executing them.
An image uploaded on June 14, 2014 on the jihadist website Welayat Salahuddin allegedly shows militants of ISIS capturing dozens of Iraqi security forces members prior to transporting them to an unknown location in the Salaheddin province ahead of executing them. Welayat Salahuddin—AFP/Getty Images

As militants advance and American embassy hunkers down

The Obama Administration is “open” to direct talks with Iran over the exploding crisis in Iraq, Secretary of State John Kerry said in an interview published Monday, as militants who say they massacred hundreds of Iraqi soldiers continued their march toward Baghdad and the U.S. embassy there evacuated some personnel.

Kerry told Yahoo News that drone strikes in the country “may well” be an option. Asked if the military cooperation with Iran might be on the table, Kerry said he wouldn’t “rule out anything that would be constructive.” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki later walked back the latter comment, saying on Twitter that the Administration is open to “political conversation with Iran” but “not military cooperation.”

U.S. diplomats may discuss the situation in Iraq with their Iranian counterparts as early as Monday while in Geneva for the so-called “P5+1″ talks about Iran’s nuclear program, a senior Administration official said. “It may be that on the margins of P5+1, but completely unconnected to it, there may be some conversation,” the official said.

Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Jake Sullivan, a national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, were in Geneva on Monday. With the U.S. embassy in Baghdad relocating some employees, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on Monday ordered another American warship to the Persian Gulf to protect “American citizens and interests in Iraq,” a Pentagon spokesman said in a statement.

“Its presence in the Gulf adds to that of other U.S. naval ships already there—including the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush—and provides the commander-in-chief additional options to protect American citizens and interests in Iraq, should he choose to use them,” Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said.

The potential outreach to Iran comes as the Islamic Republic has already offered to help Iraq battle Sunni insurgents destabilizing the country and fomenting sectarian unrest. The Guardian, citing an unnamed senior Iraqi official, reports Iran has already sent 2,000 troops across the border. Iran’s Shi’ite government is wary of the gains by Sunni militants in Iraq, while the U.S. is watching a country where it invested years, thousands of lives and more than a trillion dollars descend into chaos. That could make common cause for frequent foes already engaged in unprecedented diplomacy over the country’s nuclear program. The Wall Street Journal first reported on the possible talks Sunday.

Congressional Republicans have criticized the Obama Administration over the situation in Iraq, and Sen. John McCain said Monday that it would be the “height of folly” to work with Iran to stabilize the country.

“This is the same Iranian regime that has trained and armed the most dangerous Shia militant groups, that has consistently urged [Iraqi] Prime Minister Maliki to pursue a narrow sectarian agenda at the expense of national reconciliation, that supplies the rockets that have been fired at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, that has sponsored acts of terrorism throughout the Middle East and the world, and that continues to use Iraq’s territory and airspace to send weapons and fighters to prop up Bashar al-Assad in Syria,” McCain said in a statement. “The reality is, U.S. and Iranian interests and goals do not align in Iraq, and greater Iranian intervention would only make the situation dramatically worse.”

President Hasan Rouhani of Iran said Saturday that he was open to working with the U.S. in Iran, the Journal reports.

“When the U.S. takes action, then one can think about cooperation,” Rouhani said in Tehran. “Until today, no specific request for help has been demanded. But we are ready to help within international law.”

Secretary of State John Kerry signaled Saturday that any talks would be unconnected to the nuclear negotiations.

“Whatever dialogue may or may not be taking place [with Iran] would take place on the sideline or outside the mainstream of the nuclear talks,” Kerry said. “We don’t want that linked and mixed.”

Militants who have captured Iraq’s second-largest city Mosul, as well as Tikrit, took over the northern town of Tal Afar on Monday, the Associated Press reports, which sits along the key highway to Syria.

-Additional reporting by Zeke J Miller

TIME Iraq

The Only Winners in Iraq’s Chaos: the Kurds

Kurdistan hunkers down in Northern Iraq as chaos swirls around it

On a balmy, clear evening on June 12, Kurdish Regional Government officials, including the Prime Minister’s spokesman, ex-patriots and Erbil socialites, gathered on top of Safeen Mountain above Shaqlawa, about 50 kilometers northeast of Erbil, for a sun-down moon-rise party.

The group was untroubled by the hostilities 100 miles west, where two days earlier the al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria had seized Mosul and stormed south. Sipping wine and munching on cheese, the party goers pondered if Baghdad would fall to ISIS, which had swept within 60 miles of the capital (the consensus: probably not), and whether Baghdad’s soldiers would ever come back to reclaim Kirkuk, which they had unceremoniously abandoned ahead of ISIS’s advance, leaving it to the Kurdish peshmerga forces to defend (again, probably not).

The next day the group took an all-day outing to the highest lake in Kurdistan, enjoying panoramic views the mountainous area the Kurds like to hail as the “Grand Canyon on the Middle East.”

If civil war has come back to Iraq, the semi-autonomous Kurdish north is certainly not feeling it. Yes, the peshmerga are now in control of Kirkuk—a strategic city the Kurds have long sought to reclaim after Saddam Hussein annexed it from them in the early 1990’s. And, yes, they have beefed up security along their western borders. But the Kurds are otherwise focused on other pursuits.

Their partnership with Turkey is roaring, with oil flowing north in a newly built pipeline. They’re busy building hotels, with Hilton, Sheraton, Marriott and Kempinski erecting five-star resorts there, in order to cope with the influx of tourists that have arrived since Erbil was named the Arab Tourism Board’s destination for 2014. They’re exploring potential ski areas in the mountains and expansion of farms in the northwest.

The fact that an estimated 5,000 ISIS fighters now stand between Erbil and Baghdad only serves as a physical barricade of a partition that has been in effect for at least six months, if not years. As Iraq falls apart, the Kurds are discretely moving towards their long-sought-after goal of an independent state.

“We’ve said all along that we won’t break away from Iraq but Iraq may break away from us, and it seems that it is,” Qubad Talabani, deputy prime minister of the Kurdish Regional Government, tells TIME. “There’s been many times that we felt it could happen, that it was only a matter of time that it would happen, and it has.”

Iraq is evolving, Talabani says, into a Kurdistan in the north, and into central Sunnistan—both of which reject Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s increasing authoritarianism—and a Shia state in the south. There is still time, he says, before all-out civil war, for Maliki to reconsider and apply the constitution, which allows for devolved federalist-style governance, but that window is rapidly closing.

Years ago, the Kurds turned away from Baghdad to Ankara, in the hopes of finding a new regional champion. And, surprise surprise, in Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, they found such a partner. In a striking turnaround from 2007, when the Turks were so afraid of Kurdish secession they positioned 200,000 troops on the Kurdish border, Turkey has more recently embraced Kurdistan as a moderate partner and an important steady source of oil, as Turkey seeks to cement itself as the oil gateway from the Middle East to Europe.

Turkey doesn’t yet support Kurdish independence, but Erdogan has been making progress to normalize relations with his own Kurdish population in the south, freeing the head of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) resistance group and recognizing Kurdish as a language. The border, once lined with troops, is now open and flowing with goods and tourist traffic that moves both ways.

Turkey is the single largest foreign direct investor in the Kurdish region. “Turkey’s policy of supporting a unified Iraq has come to pieces over the perception that it is very anti-Maliki and, possibility, the Shia Islamists who run Iraq, and that they can only work with the Kurds,” says Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert with the International Crisis Group.

The partnership was cemented with the construction of an oil pipeline form Kurdistan to Turkey, allowing the Kurds to directly export their oil and gas without Baghdad’s help or approval. In protest, Baghdad cut off all oil profit sharing form the southern fields six months ago, forcing the Kurds to fend for themselves—given their plethora of oil contracts, they’re hardly starving. These days, Maliki has little time to resolve his oil fight with the Kurds. “Oil profit sharing right now is the last thing on Baghdad’s mind. It’s an existential threat that the Prime Minister is facing right now,” Talabani says.

Talabani warns that Iraq could be on the cusp of a full-blown sectarian war. He said he finds Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s call to Shias to take up arms earlier this week, after the Iraqi army all but collapsed, particularly troubling. “The fatwa Sistani issued, calling on a national civil defense, could lead to that civil war, because now you have young Shias taking up arms to defend Iraq,” Talabani says. Sistani later clarified his remarks to call on everyone, especially those living in “mixed areas,” to “exert the highest possible level of self-restraint during this tumultuous period. And [we urge] all [ethno-sectarian groups] to behave in the most compassionate and kindest of manners.”

The biggest difference between the 2006-2007 Iraqi insurgency and the current push is that the Sunni tribes are allowing ISIS in, Talabani says. “They seem to be walking into towns and not causing too much damage,” he said. All the same, Sunni groups are disparate and fractionalized. “The Sunnis are completely rejecting Maliki and they’ll align with anyone with the right interests. Anyone but the Shias. The Baathists. ISIS. Ideological opposites united in their hatred of Maliki.”

What can the U.S. do? “If they had 140,000 troops, they could do a lot,” Talabani says. “They have to redevelop a resolve to reengage in Iraq, but for whom? I don’t see the U.S. stepping in to help Maliki and keep his coalition… They should help the Kurds—because we are the only viable partner left in Iraq.” Talabani said the U.S. should help arm and train the peshmerga to help stabilize the region, rather than pouring arms into Baghdad. “If we’d had 1/17th of the arms they provided the Baghdad military, we wouldn’t have laid them down. We would’ve fought and held our ground.”

Is it even possible to take a holistic approach to Iraq policy any more? “The country fell apart long ago. Now, it’s about each part picking up its own crumbs and getting on with it,” says Stafford Clarry, a longtime United Nations official in Kurdistan. “Forget about taking a national viewpoint and trying to build a country. That train left the station.”

TIME Iraq

U.S. Military Options in Iraq Are Pretty Thin

Planes are parked on the deck of the USS
The aircraft aboard the USS George W. Bush are now within striking distance of Iraq. BORIS HORVA / AFP / Getty Images

Airstrikes at the top of the list as carrier moves into position

If the U.S. military attacks targets in Iraq, it’ll be a long way from the “shock and awe” bombing campaign that opened the 2003 war. Think of it more like a delicate smattering of smaller bombs and missiles designed to pick off elements of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria as they try to consolidate the gains they have made over the past week against the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki.

“We need air power immediately to stop the advance toward Baghdad,” Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told CBS Sunday. “The seeds of 9/11s are being planted all over Iraq and Syria.”

Air strikes are on the list, Pentagon officials say, including F-18 bombing runs from the USS George W. Bush, which moved into the Persian Gulf over the weekend. “There are an awful lot of movements that they are making that are targetable,” Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says of ISIS’s movements. “They have to be able to move between cities to expand, they have to have supply lines. We don’t have to conduct urban bombing to deal with the expansion of this movement.” But the lack of a target-rich environment means any military action will be limited.

Attacks from unmanned aircraft offer the safest option for the U.S. because no pilots could be shot down and captured. But manned land-based aircraft pack a bigger punch, and carrier-based air disposes with the need to get someone’s permission to park your warplanes on their runway.

Ideally, you’d want to base your aircraft as close to your targets as possible, to maximize the number of sorties each plane could fly, instead of spending hours en route to the targets. The U.S. may press Maliki for permission to base U.S. aircraft inside Iraq, if the White House agrees that doesn’t violate President Obama’s bar on putting combat troops inside the country. They also could be based in the Kurdish north of the country, or in neighboring nations.

But missiles without good intelligence to guide them to the right targets are simply indiscriminate IEDs that could kill friendly forces, or even civilians. That’s why some military experts argue there need to be U.S., or at least allied, spotters on the ground—no one is willing to trust targets selected by Maliki’s military—to ensure destruction happens in the right place. “You could put [U.S.] Special Forces on the ground with the Iraqis to advise them and get frontline intelligence and to control air strikes,” says Anthony Zinni, a retired four-star Marine general who served as chief of U.S. Central Command. But that, too, could run afoul of Obama’s bar on U.S. troops on the ground inside Iraq.

MQ-1 Predators, outfitted with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, are well-equipped to take out moving targets. MQ-9 Reapers, in addition to Hellfires, also can carry precision-guided 500-pound bombs, which could take out ISIS camps and depots.

Basing U.S. warplanes in the region shouldn’t be a problem if Iraq’s neighbors get nervous enough. “Potentially, the gulf will see enough of a threat so that it isn’t even a matter of having to base air power in Iraq,” Cordesman says. “You could conduct air strikes out of bases in Kuwait or Qatar.”

Strikes also could be launched from the carrier, which arrived in the gulf along with the guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea, the guided-missile destroyer USS Truxtun, and the USS USS Mesa Verde, an amphibious vessel carrying 550 Marines.

Stephen Biddle, a military analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations, doesn’t think air strikes will accomplish much. “We had a lot of troops on the ground in 2006 and we weren’t able to bring this thing to a finale,” Biddle says. “Now we think we’re going to do it with airstrikes alone? Very unlikely.”

Unmanned and unarmed RQ-4 Global Hawk drones have been tracking ISIS moves in Iraq in recent weeks. “We’ve been watching events in Iraq for some time and watching ISIL’s movements and developments, capabilities,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said. “Clearly, they’re well-resourced. And what we’re seeing is a not unsophisticated, you know, degree of cooperation and organization on their part, and of course, momentum.”

Pentagon officials speak of the need to “break” ISIS’s “momentum,” but concede it’s a tough challenge. Despite the intelligence streaming from the Global Hawks, the U.S. was still stunned by ISIS’s rapid progress. That suggests, they say, that ISIS’s successes are due more to the Iraqi army’s ineptitude and lack of will to fight than ISIS’s martial prowess.

“I’m not going to be cute about it,” Kirby said. “We’re certainly disappointed by the performance of some Iraqi force units with respect to the challenges that they have faced in the last few days.” But, in what is becoming the Administration’s mantra, he added: “When we left Iraq, we left with Iraqi security forces that were competent to the threat that they were facing,” Kirby said, acknowledging “that threat has evolved over three years.”

“I think Baghdad is vulnerable, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said on Fox Sunday. “It appears that they’ve halted their attack on Baghdad and now are trying — they being ISIS — now are trying to consolidate their wins in Mosul and Tikrit and other places, build in their defenses.”

The Obama Administration said Sunday that some of the U.S. embassy’s staff in Baghdad will be moved to consulates elsewhere in Iraq, and to a State Department facility in Amman, Jordan. “At the request of the State Department, the U.S. military is providing security assistance for our diplomatic facilities in Baghdad,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said. “A small number of Department of Defense personnel are augmenting State Department security assets in Baghdad to help ensure the safety of our facilities.”

If the ISIS pushes threatens Baghdad, the U.S. might have to join with Iran in an alliance to defend the Iraqi capital, Lindsey said. “We’re going to probably need their help to hold Baghdad,” he said. “In the short term, why did we deal with Stalin? Because he was not as bad as Hitler in our eyes.”

But if ISIS decides it is satisfied with half a loaf, it could set up an enclave straddling Syria and Iraq. How long the U.S. and other nations could allow such a sore to fester isn’t known. But they’d have to act to take it out before it becomes infected.

TIME Iraq

What You Should Know About What’s Happening in Iraq Right Now

6 key things to help you understand the crisis unfolding in Iraq

+ READ ARTICLE

The recent offensive launched by the Sunni insurgents of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is the most significant threat to Iraq’s security since the American withdrawal in 2011. The al-Qaeda offshoot has united thousands of foreign fighters under its black flag and a desire to redraw Middle East borders in order to create an Islamic state—or Caliphate—governed by an extremist interpretation of Islamic law.

Militants seized a number of cities and small towns in a lightning assault south toward Baghdad over the past week, displacing hundreds of thousands of people and igniting a global debate about how to respond. They boasted of executing 1,700 soldiers, but the authenticity of that claim is in question. As concerns ramp up that one of the world’s top oil producers is again teetering on the brink of a sectarian civil war, here are the main things you need to know about the regional crisis:

1. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the new public enemy No. 1

Little is known about the man shepherding thousands of radicals between Syria and Iraq. Also called Abu Dua, he was aligned with al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri before the two broke ties over ISIS’ brutal tactics. Baghdadi is arguably the most successful Islamist terrorist since Osama bin Laden—not even bin Laden managed to control a large stretch of territory in Arab lands—and the State Department is offering a $10 million reward for his capture.

2. Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s Prime Minister, has made sectarian tensions worse

Two main reasons why ISIS tore through Iraq’s Sunni heartland so quickly—soldiers ran away when ISIS converged on Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city—can be traced to Maliki. Iraq’s security forces are weak, despite billions of American dollars spent on training, and the absence of national unity has deeply polarized the political landscape. Maliki and his Shi’ite-dominated government are resented by many Sunnis and Kurds for what they see as sectarian rhetoric and policies that have denied them representation and support.

“Maliki has intimidated and driven key Sunni figures out of his government, ignored agreements to create a national unity government, alienated the Kurds and tried to repress legitimate Sunni opposition in ways that have contributed to steadily rising violence and civilian deaths,” write Anthony H. Cordesman and Sam Khazai of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Maliki’s undermining of the judicial system, police and army for his own advantage, they say, have kept the country vulnerable to power grabs. “With nowhere else to go,” writes Dexter Filkins of the New Yorker, “Iraq’s Sunnis are turning, once again, to the extremists to protect them.”

3. The Kurds may inadvertently gain from the ISIS offensive

Iraq’s Kurdish minority enjoys a semi-autonomous enclave in the northeast that has largely been spared the attacks that plague Iraq. But the new strife could heighten friction between the Kurds, Sunnis and Shi’ites since the Peshmerga—the Kurdish security forces—filled the power void in Kirkuk after Iraqi soldiers retreated. The Kurds have long sought control of the oil city, which they call its historical capital.

That development could contribute to Iraq splitting along sectarian lines. “This would be a further prelude for the division of Iraq,” Brig. Halgord Hikmat, spokesman for the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Peshmerga Ministry, told the Wall Street Journal. “A united Iraq is not the solution at this moment.” Partition would breed a host of other issues, but with Shi’ite clerics encouraging thousands of followers to pick up arms and counter the Sunni insurgents, the Kurds—left off the map after World War I and seeking their own state—could win out.

4. Any crackdown on ISIS could help Syrian President Bashar Assad

The region has been irreversibly impacted by Syria’s civil war. Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon are grappling with humanitarian crises as millions of Syrians have sought refuge in those countries. But Iraq has fared the worst: Parts of its border with Syria have been erased by ISIS, which took the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in January and controls swaths of several provinces, and Baghdad is rocked by regular bombings.

The ultra-extremists have flourished in Syria by seizing territories that were poorly run by opposition factions. Brutal takeovers have been followed by what Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, describes as “soft-power outreach.” ISIS holds anti-regime forums in neighborhood squares and fun activities for children to gain early support, and also hands out charity while promoting its mandate. Zelin adds: “ISIS is attempting to lay the groundwork for a future Islamic state by gradually socializing Syrians to the concept.”

A stronger ISIS bodes ill for Assad. Facing two battles, one to keep or reclaim territory and the other to win back hearts and minds, he could benefit from outside help to beat the insurgency. One idea proposed by a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation is a deal between Damascus and the West to bring peace to vulnerable areas and allow Assad to focus on regaining land: “Assad could help NATO and other willing partners focus time and resources on ISIS, which poses the greatest threat to the Middle East, the United States, and Europe.”

5. Iran wants ISIS stopped

The Islamic Republic has played a major role in propping up the Assad regime. But that assistance has not proven a deal-breaker as Tehran and Western powers work to resolve the nuclear standoff. Political leaders on both sides of those negotiations see ISIS as a growing threat and speculation is rampant they may work alongside each other to quell it.

“We will fight against terrorism, factionalism and violence,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on June 12. Days after a report emerged that units of Iran’s elite Quds Force were dispatched to protect allies in Baghdad and the sacred Shi’ite sites of Najaf and Karbala, Rouhani clarified that Iran is ready to help Iraq—if asked—and would consider “cooperation” with any American efforts. (Military decisions rest with its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.)

6. The U.S. is likely to tread softly

The White House has so far resisted committing serious aid to helping Iraq fight the insurgents. It was criticized for not doing enough to ensure security before its withdrawal, which came after Washington and Baghdad failed to agree on conditions for leaving a residual contingent to, among other priorities, keep training security forces and supporting intelligence efforts against Sunni extremists. Obama wanted America’s bravest back home, but it was an overly stubborn Maliki who ultimately doomed the sensitive negotiations.

What’s happening now is direct fallout, as Iraq couldn’t stand on its own. Obama understands this, saying last week that he wouldn’t “rule out anything because we do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria.” Defense officials are now mulling options that don’t include boots on the ground. But if there is any takeaway from Obama’s address on June 13, during which he asserted “we will do our part” while casting blame on Maliki for authoritarian policies that fueled division among the sects, it’s that what is happening in Iraq is no longer America’s problem. That doesn’t mean he won’t work with an adversary or two to solve it.

TIME Iraq

State Dept Will Beef Up Security at Baghdad Embassy

A U.S. flag flies in front of the Annex I building inside the compound of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad
A U.S. flag flies in front of the Annex I building inside the compound of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad December 14, 2011. Lucas Jackson—Reuters

Taking action as militant extremist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) expands its reach and heads toward the city

The U.S. State Department announced Sunday that the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad will stay open as militant extremists in Iraq continue their offensive toward the city, but it will also take a number of increased security measures to protect its staff.

“As a result of ongoing instability and violence in certain areas of Iraq, Embassy Baghdad is reviewing its staffing requirements in consultation with the State Department,” spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a statement.

The State Department said it will increase the number of security personnel in Baghdad, while other embassy staff members will be relocated to the Consulate Generals in Erbil and Basra as well as the Iraq Support Unit in Amman, Jordan. Most of the embassy staff will remain on site and “continue to engage daily with Iraqis and their elected leaders — supporting them as they strengthen Iraq’s constitutional processes and defend themselves from imminent threats.”

The Pentagon also announced that the U.S. military would provide security assistance to diplomats stationed in Baghdad. “A small number of DOD personnel are augmenting State Department security assets in Baghdad to help ensure the safety of our facilities,” said Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby.

The move to beef up security in Iraq comes after the State Department faced criticism over its lack of security at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which was overrun by militants in a 2012 attack that killed 4 Americans including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. But the embassy compound in Iraq has both a far heavier military presence and stronger fortifications than the Benghazi compound had.

TIME Iraq

ISIS Claims Massacre of 1,700 Iraqi Soldiers

New claims circulated on the radical militant group's Twitter and social media accounts purport to detail mass graves and brutal killings, in a gruesome propaganda campaign

+ READ ARTICLE

In a series of tweets and shocking photos posted to their social-media sites, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is boasting to have slaughtered 1,700 Iraqi soldiers in the past week as the militant Islamist group continued its blitzkrieg toward Baghdad.

The alleged massacre, as well as the body count, has not yet been verified, but if proved true it would be the single largest act of mass killing in a war that now spans Syria and Iraq. Even if exaggerated, the claims are potent propaganda designed to terrify their opponents and pre-empt resistance as the al-Qaeda-inspired group consolidates control in Iraq’s Sunni areas.

It also may be designed to inflame sectarian tensions, all but demanding a response from the country’s Shiite militias in an effort to launch a sectarian war that could end up redrawing the map of the Middle East.

The photos, some 60 in all, start with rather benign images of loot — ammunition, Humvees, trucks and weapons — captured from Iraqi army bases that were abandoned by fleeing soldiers. It appears that they were taken over the past week in Salahuddin province. Tikrit, the principal city (and former President Saddam Hussein’s hometown) was captured by ISIS on June 12.

The photos go on to show a grim slide show of men described in taunting captions as soldiers caught “trying to flee the battles in civilian clothing.” Bloodied corpses stain the ground in at least five different locations, and several of the photos document firing squads garlanded with the black ISIS flag preparing to kill scores of handcuffed men packed in shallow graves.

“Liquidation of the herds of the Safavid arm,” states one caption, a reference to an Iranian dynasty and, by extension, Shi‘ites. “They are lions with the weak, but in wars they are ostriches,” says another caption laid over a group of terrified, handcuffed men forced to stand with their heads bent toward their knees. It is a message designed to capitalize on Sunni resentment over the hardhanded tactics of the Shi‘ite-dominated government in Baghdad. The carnage goes on for 25 frames; in some it looks as if the militants are killing their victims with brand new weapons, possibly the soldiers’ own guns — if they are indeed soldiers.

ISIS’s media wing has long used propaganda to intimidate its opponents and draw recruits, both in Syria and Iraq. The organization, which started as al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2003, expanded into Syria as the conflict took shape there, and eventually changed its name to better reflect its overarching goal: an Islamic caliphate spanning the region and ruled by a radical interpretation of Islamic law. Al-Qaeda has since repudiated the group for its extreme tactics.

Just a few weeks prior to ISIS’s march on the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, which fell on June 10, the group’s media wing released a similarly gruesome video. Titled The Sound of Swords Clashing, the hourlong video depicts a series of vicious executions of Iraqi soldiers and officers. It went viral in Iraq, according to a new report by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, and may have been designed to threaten members of the Iraqi armed forces before the militant advance into northern Iraq.

If 1,700 soldiers or Iraqis were indeed killed, the released photos show only a fraction of the dead, raising some skepticism among human-rights investigators. “We’re trying to verify the pics, and I am not convinced they are authentic,” Erin Evers, the Human Rights Watch researcher in Iraq, told the New York Times. “As far as ISIS claiming it has killed 1,700 people and publishing horrific photos to support that claim, it is unfortunately in keeping with their pattern of commission of atrocities, and obviously intended to further fuel sectarian war.” Nor have Iraqi officials confirmed that a massacre took place.

A true documentation of a horrific war crime, or a slickly produced piece of propaganda that amplified scores of dead into thousands, either way the photos will have their intended effect: terror and a call to arms. ISIS alone will never be able to capture all of Iraq, but if the country descends once again into sectarian war, its ultimate goal will be that much closer. “Sectarian civil war is the enabler,” says Jessica Lewis, an ISIS expert at the Institute for the Study of War. “They want to set conditions in Iraq that look like Syria so they can set up an Islamic state.”

— With reporting by Hania Mourtada / Beirut

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 45,257 other followers