The march of ISIS in Iraq: Can Pentagon advisers help stop it?

Despite the collapse of Iraqi defenses in June, there are still 'extremely capable' units in Iraq that the US 'should not write off,' a top State Department official tells Congress.

A sign is posted at a checkpoint belonging to the Islamic State group, captured from the Iraqi Army, at the main entrance of Rawah, 175 miles northwest of Baghdad, on July 22, 2014. The Arabic reads, 'Islamic State, the Emirate of Anbar, City of Rawah.' It has been nearly six weeks since a Sunni militant blitz led by the Islamic State extremist group seized large swaths of northern and western Iraq.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is no longer a terrorist organization, but rather something that is “in fact, worse than Al Qaeda,” warned a top US official Wednesday: “A full-blown Army.” 

Brett McGurk, deputy assistant secretary of State for Iraq and Iran, provided the assessment in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “They are a self-sustaining organization and flush with cash, no question.”

This presents unique challenges for the government of Iraq and for the roughly 300 US troops who are advising it, US officials told lawmakers. 

The US team responsible for making recommendations to senior US military officials delivered its report to the Pentagon last week, and the commander of US Central Command, Gen. Lloyd Austin, will travel to Iraq to assess the situation on the ground Thursday.

What is clear is that in the aftermath of the early June march of the ISIS Army from Syria into one of Iraq’s largest cities, “Iraqi resistance totally collapsed, which led to a panic and a snowballing effect,” Mr. McGurk said. “The result was catastrophic.”

Four Iraqi divisions dissolved in the month of June alone, and 1,500 Iraqis have died in the ensuing violence.

Now US troops have established a joint operations center in Baghdad, collecting intelligence on insurgent organizations, including ISIS. “I can say that the information we have now on these networks is night and day from where it was in May,” said McGurk, who offered a window into the sort of recommendations that may come out of the Pentagon’s assessment.

A system of “functioning federalism” may be the best way forward for governing the country, he said. The “recognition in Iraq is that from the center out, you’re never going to fully control all of these territories, particularly given the capacity of ISIL,” a reference to the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant, another name for ISIS.

He painted a portrait of local Iraqi citizens responsible for securing local communities with state support in a “National Guard-type force structure.” The rest of the Iraqi Army, in turn, would “focus on borders and rarely deploy inside cities.”

While the Iraqi government requested drone strikes and US air support to stop the advance of ISIS on Iraqi cities, the US government has yet to approve these requests. Instead, the Iraqi military has retrofitted Cessna airplanes with hellfire missiles, lawmakers noted.

The request for US military air support that the Iraqi government made in May “has never been denied,” McGurk responded. “It’s still under consideration.” 

In the meantime, however, it is still in the US interest to “invest” in Iraqi units that still want to fight ISIS. “There are very incapable and incompetent [Iraqi] units with poor leadership,” McGurk said. But there are also “extremely capable” units that the US “should not write off.”

On this point, some lawmakers were skeptical. In the course of America’s nearly decade-long war in Iraq, the US “spent billions of dollars on a group of people that are not willing to fight,” said Rep. Albio Sires (D) of New Jersey.

McGurk responded that the commanders of the units that deserted their posts “have all been fired.” 

As the Iraqi military seeks to battle ISIS, however, the advance of the Islamist insurgents “poses a threat to US interests,” Elissa Slotkin, acting principal deputy undersecretary of Defense for policy, told lawmakers. 

Even so, she added, “Iraqis must do the heavy lifting.”

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