Iraqi prime minister’s focus is to defend Baghdad


BAGHDAD (AP) — Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is ready to
concede, at least temporarily, the loss of much of Iraq to Sunni
insurgents and is instead deploying the military’s best-trained and
equipped troops to defend Baghdad, Iraqi officials told The Associated
Press Tuesday.
Shiite militias responding to a call to arms by
Iraq’s top cleric are also focused on protecting the capital and Shiite
shrines, while Kurdish fighters have grabbed a long-coveted oil-rich
city outside their self-ruled territory, ostensibly to defend it from
the al-Qaida breakaway group.
With Iraq’s bitterly divided sects
focused on self-interests, the situation on the ground is increasingly
looking like the fractured state the Americans have hoped to avoid.
are facing a new reality and a new Iraq," the top Kurdish leader,
Massoud Barzani, told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday in
Irbil, capital of the self-ruled Kurdish region in northern Iraq.
weeks after a series of disastrous battlefield setbacks in the north
and west, al-Maliki is struggling to devise an effective strategy to
repel the relentless advances by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq
and the Levant, a well-trained and mobile force thought to have some
10,000 fighters inside Iraq. The response by government forces has so
far been far short of a counteroffensive, restricted mostly to areas
where Shiites are in danger of falling prey to the Sunni extremists or
around a major Shiite shrine north of Baghdad.
These weaknesses
were highlighted when the government tried but failed to retake Tal
Afar, a mixed Shiite-Sunni city of some 200,000 that sits strategically
near the Syrian border. The government claimed it had retaken parts of
the city but the area remains under the control of the militants after a
battle in which some 30 volunteers and troops were killed.
forces backed by helicopter gunships have also fought for a week to
defend Iraq’s largest oil refinery in Beiji, north of Baghdad, where a
top military official said Tuesday that Sunni militants were regrouping
for another push to capture the sprawling facility.
In the face of
militant advances that have virtually erased Iraq’s western border with
Syria and captured territory on the frontier with Jordan, al-Maliki’s
focus has been the defense of Baghdad, a majority Shiite city of 7
million fraught with growing tension. The city’s Shiites fear they could
be massacred and the revered al-Kazimiyah shrine destroyed if Islamic
State fighters capture Baghdad. Sunni residents also fear the
extremists, as well as Shiite militiamen in the city, who they worry
could turn against them.
The militants have vowed to march to
Baghdad and the holy Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala, a threat that
prompted the nation’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani,
to issue an urgent call to arms that has resonated with young Shiite
The military’s best-trained and equipped forces have been
deployed to bolster Baghdad’s defenses, aided by U.S. intelligence on
the militants’ movements, according to the Iraqi officials, who are
close to al-Maliki’s inner circle and spoke on condition of anonymity to
discuss such sensitive issues.
The number of troops normally
deployed in Baghdad has doubled, they said, but declined to give a
figure. Significant numbers are defending the Green Zone, the sprawling
area on the west bank of the Tigris River that is home to al-Maliki’s
office, as well as the U.S. Embassy.
"Al-Maliki is tense. He is up
working until 4 a.m. every day. He angrily ordered staff at his office
to stop watching TV news channels hostile to his government," one of the
officials said.
The struggle has prompted the Obama
administration to send hundreds of troops back into Iraq, nearly three
years after the American military withdrew.
The Pentagon said
Tuesday that nearly half of the roughly 300 U.S. advisers and special
operations forces are now on the ground in Baghdad, where they have
begun to assess the Iraqi forces and the fight against Sunni militants.
Another four teams of special forces will arrive in days, bringing the
total to nearly 200.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman,
also said the U.S. is conducting up to 35 surveillance missions daily
over Iraq to provide intelligence as Iraqi troops battle the aggressive
and fast-moving insurgency. About 90 of the U.S. troops are setting up a
joint operations center in Baghdad.
Iraqi officials said the U.S.
advisers were expected to focus on the better units the Americans had
closely worked with before pulling out.
Iraq’s best-trained and
equipped force is a 10,000-strong outfit once nicknamed the "dirty
division" that fought alongside the Americans for years against Sunni
extremists and Shiite militiamen. Now it is stretched thin, with many of
its men deployed in Anbar province in a months-long standoff with Sunni
militants who have since January controlled a city 30 miles (50
kilometers) west of Baghdad.
The focus on Baghdad, rather than
recapturing the vast Sunni areas to the west and north, has been subtly
conveyed to the media in daily briefings by chief military spokesman Lt.
Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi. He has in recent days shifted from boilerplate
assurances that the military is on the offensive to something less
"Withdrawals from anywhere to another location does not
mean defeat or that we permanently left an area," he said Monday. "It
is a battlefield, and the fight includes going forward and backward and
The Iraqi military, rife with corruption and torn by
conflicting loyalties, lacks adequate air cover for its ground troops
and armor, with the nation’s infant air force operating two Cessna
aircraft capable of firing U.S.-made Hellfire missiles. That leaves the
army air wing of helicopter gunships stretched and overworked.
Iraq’s security forces number a whopping 1.1 million, with 700,000 in
the police and the rest in the army, corruption, desertion and sectarian
divisions have been a major problem. With a monthly salary of $700 for
newly enlisted men, the forces have attracted many young Iraqis who
would otherwise be unemployed. Once in, some bribe commanders so they
can stay home and take a second job, lamented the officials.
effort to bolster the defense of the capital coincides with Iraq’s
worst crisis since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. forces, with the nation
facing a serious danger of splitting up into warring Sunni, Shiite and
Kurdish enclaves.
The declaration by Barzani, the Kurdish leader,
of a "new Iraq," was a thinly veiled reference to the newly won Kurdish
control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which the Kurds have long sought
to incorporate into their self-rule region.
Control of Kirkuk and
Kurdish pockets in Diyala province and elsewhere have been at the heart
of tension between the Kurdish region and the Baghdad government, and
the Kurds are unlikely to want to give up that territory, regardless of
the status of the fighting.
Al-Maliki, who has no military
background but gets the final say on major battlefield decisions, has
looked to hundreds of thousands of Shiite volunteers who joined the
security forces as the best hope to repel the Islamic State’s offensive.
giving the conflict a sectarian slant — the overwhelming majority are
Shiites — the volunteers have also been a logistical headache as the
army tries to clothe, feed and arm them. Furthermore, their inexperience
means they will not be combat ready for weeks, even months.
Still, some were sent straight to battle, with disastrous consequences.
details about the fight for Tal Afar — the first attempt to retake a
major city from the insurgents — underscore the challenges facing the
Iraqi security forces.
Dozens of young volunteers disembarked last
week at an airstrip near the isolated northern city and headed straight
to battle, led by an army unit. The volunteers and the accompanying
troops initially staved off advances by the militants, but were soon
beaten back, according to military officials.
They took refuge in
the airstrip, but the militants shelled the facility so heavily the army
unit pulled out, leaving 150 panicking volunteers to fend for
themselves, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity
because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
ill-fated expedition — at least 30 volunteers and troops were killed and
the rest of the recruits remain stranded at the airstrip — does not
bode well for al-Maliki’s declared plan to make them the backbone of
Iraq’s future army.
Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad and Lara Jakes in Irbil, Iraq, contributed to this

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