The rapid advance by Islamic militants in Iraq is building pressure on President Barack Obama to launch air strikes to support the beleaguered Iraqi army.
“It’s fair to say that, in our consultations with the Iraqis, there will be some short-term, immediate things that need to be done militarily,” Obama said today.
Deciding to use military force would require Obama to overcome his reluctance to return to Iraq, particularly after he’s portrayed ending the wars there and in Afghanistan as his foreign policy legacy. At the same time, the U.S. public is weary of war, and congressional support is lukewarm at best.
The U.S. has the ability to deploy aircraft quickly that could thwart the offensive by a radical Sunni Muslim group, although that would do little to resolve underlying sectarian tensions that are fueling the conflict.
“It’s doable,” Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said of an air offensive in an interview. “It won’t be decisive in rolling back all of their gains, but it probably could stop the offensive” from advancing to the capital Baghdad and other predominately Shiite areas.
Iraq, whose Shiite-dominated and Iranian-backed government is led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, is seeking emergency U.S. military help after units of its army fled from advancing forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, an al-Qaeda offshoot known by its acronym ISIL.
No Ground Troops
“I don’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, for that matter,” Obama said after a meeting with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott at the White House. Obama’s spokesman, Jay Carney, said afterward that the U.S. is “not contemplating ground troops.”
While Obama met today with his national security staff at the White House, it wasn’t clear whether detailed planning for military operations was under way. The U.S. administration hasn’t responded to a request last month from Maliki for U.S. air attacks against militant training camps in western Iraq, according to two U.S. officials who asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations.
If Obama decides to act, U.S. warplanes or drones could be deployed from the large Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, or from bases in Kuwait and Turkey. In addition, the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain, is armed with cruise missiles, and the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier U.S.S. George W. Bush has been on station in the North Arabian Sea.
There’s limited enthusiasm so far in Congress for air strikes in Iraq two and a half years after the last U.S. troops withdrew after more than eight years there. California Republican Representative Buck McKeon, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told reporters that he doesn’t see “burning out more resources” to help “a place that just seems bent on destruction.”
Paul Pillar, who was the national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005, said in a phone interview that he’s wary of a “slippery slope into a new stage of the Iraq war.”
“It would be a mistake for the United States, either in the air or on the ground, to resume its military involvement in Iraq,” said Pillar, a retired CIA official who has criticized President George W. Bush’s administration for “cherry-picking” intelligence to justify the 2003 Iraq invasion.
One concern cited by Cordesman and Pillar is that Maliki has run the government in a way that’s further alienated Iraq’s Sunni population, despite pressure from the U.S. for reconciliation.
The current crisis stems, to a large extent, from Maliki’s mismanagement, which has created at least some support for the jihadists in the Sunni-dominated northern and western parts of Iraq, the analysts said. Cordesman and Pillar said any emergency military involvement should be conditioned on Maliki taking steps toward a political deal with legitimate Sunni leaders.
“Iraq beckons as a field of opportunity because of the rising Sunni Arab anger against Maliki, which has been really spiking over the last 18 months,” said Wayne White, a former head of the State Department’s Iraq intelligence team.
The U.S. could use armed drones to target ISIL leaders and warplanes against concentrations of militant forces.
Any air strike would be likely to involve multiple types of manned and unmanned aircraft, and could take days to weeks to complete, said retired Lieutenant General David Deptula, a former Air Force intelligence chief.
“You’re not talking about a single strike,” said Deptula, who was the principal planner of the air campaign for Operation Desert Storm, which ejected Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991.
The risk to U.S. pilots would be “very, very low” because the militants lack an air force, he said. While they may have shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery, U.S. planes can fly high enough to avoid most ground fire, he said.
The U.S., which has been flying unmanned reconnaissance aircraft over Iraq for some time, probably would begin a strike by deploying pilotless MQ-9 Reaper planes equipped with an airborne surveillance system called Gorgon Stare. It can provide live video images of movements across an entire city. The planes also would be armed with bombs and missiles.
A strike then would be conducted by some combination of F-16 and F-15E fighter jets and B-1 bombers, along with intelligence and surveillance aircraft, Deptula said.
Armed unmanned aircraft such the Predator would be useful mainly in trying to kill top ISIL commanders, which in turn requires intelligence to locate and target them, said Cordesman.
“It takes time to create that kind of targeting base,” said Cordesman. “You need to be very careful to avoid civilian casualties.”
ISIL is “simply too dangerous” for the U.S. not to take some action with airpower, he said. Maliki has “basically weakened and corrupted Iraqi forces to the point where we can’t simply sit back and wait to see if the Shiite areas can hold,” he said. Still, he described that conclusion as a close call, a “55-45 proposition” given the negatives.
Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren told reporters today that the U.S. is continuing the military assistance programs started with Iraq since 2011, and is expediting the lease of AH-64 Apache helicopters for delivery this year as well as delivery of 100 Boeing Co. (BA:US) Scan Eagle surveillance drones.
About 300 of 500 promised Hellfire laser-guided anti-armor missiles have been delivered, Warren said. The missiles are fired from Iraqi-operated AC-208 Cessna light attack aircraft.
While Iraqis claim they’re using them effectively against ISIL forces, “there’s a pretty good probability that a lot of the time they are hitting the wrong thing, if they’re hitting anything at all,” said Cordesman.
In addition, the U.S. recently has delivered millions of rounds of small arms ammunition and thousands of tank rounds, Warren said.
This month, Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT:US) delivered the first of 36 F-16 aircraft to the Iraqi Air Force in a ceremony at its Fort Worth facility.
The Pentagon this month notified Congress for approval to sell Iraq an additional $1 billion of military equipment including Beechcraft AT-6C attack aircraft, AM General LLC Humvees and Raytheon Co. (RTN:US) aerostats.
The Pentagon by August 2012 completed delivery of 140 General Dynamics Corp. (GD:US) M1A1 tanks, according to the Special Inspector For Iraq Reconstruction.
The Congress from fiscal 2005 to 2011 appropriated $20.1 billion in spending for building, training and equipping a Ministry of Defense force that, as the final U.S. troops left Iraq in December 2011, numbered 279,103 personnel. The Ministry of Interior’s police, border enforcement and facilities protection personnel numbered an additional 649,800 personnel.
The Iraq war cost 4,490 Americans their lives, according to Defense Department data, and could cost U.S. taxpayers more than $2 trillion, according to the Costs of War Project by the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. The best estimates of Iraqi civilian casualties exceed 125,000.
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