ISIS advances in Iraq: How will US respond?

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant shocked many with its swift capture of Iraqi cities. Despite US vows of a lighter military footprint, other countries still seem to expect it to step in.

Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) stand guard at a checkpoint in the northern Iraq city of Mosul, June 11, 2014. Since Tuesday, black clad ISIL fighters have seized Iraq's second biggest city Mosul and Tikrit, home town of former dictator Saddam Hussein, as well as other towns and cities north of Baghdad.

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The Iraqi government is scrambling to mount a response to jihadists that are pushing south toward the capital of Baghdad after seizing several cities and towns along the corridor leading there from the north.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIS, shocked many with its swift capture of Mosul, one of Iraq's largest cities and the de facto capital of northern Iraq. It has gained momentum, taking over the oil town of Baiji and Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, and possibly towns in between. The New York Times reports that today ISIS fighters are advancing on Samarra, only 70 miles north of Baghdad, although there were some reports that after facing resistance, ISIS bypassed Samarra, according to Agence France-Presse. (The Times maps out cities under partial or complete ISIS control here.)

An ISIS representative vowed they would continue on to Baghdad and Karbala, a Shiite holy city further south, AFP reports.

Meanwhile, Kurdistan, not quite an ally of Baghdad but also seeking to halt the ISIS advance, took over the oil city of KIrkuk to prevent it from falling into ISIS hands. Known as the peshmerga, the Kurdish forces are disciplined but bear no allegiance to the Iraqi forces. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, also a Kurd, said the Kurds would work with Baghdad to “flush out these foreign fighters," according to The New York Times.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is trying to convince the parliament to declare a national state of emergency that would allow him to take steps such as imposing a curfew and limiting public movement, but AFP reports that the parliament failed to reach a quorum today.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the United States thought the Iraqi security forces were capable of holding off ISIS. Instead, many soldiers just abandoned their post in the face of the fierce but smaller jihadist forces. The Guardian reports:

The extent of the Iraqi army's defeat at the hands of militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) became clear on Wednesday when officials in Baghdad conceded that insurgents had stripped the main army base in the northern city of Mosul of weapons, released hundreds of prisoners from the city's jails and may have seized up to $480m in banknotes from the city's banks.

Iraqi officials told the Guardian that two divisions of Iraqi soldiers – roughly 30,000 men – simply turned and ran in the face of the assault by an insurgent force of just 800 fighters. Isis extremists roamed freely on Wednesday through the streets of Mosul, openly surprised at the ease with which they took Iraq's second largest city after three days of sporadic fighting.

Bloomberg Businessweek reports that Iraq seems to have scrambled its limited air force, attacking ISIS forces in Tikrit and Mosul. It has also indicated an openness to US airstrikes, the Wall Street Journal reports. The US has only said it is considering a range of options for assistance. 

The New York Times reports that Mr. Maliki quietly requested the US to consider airstrikes against "extremist staging areas" last month and that the US rejected the request.

... Despite the fact that Sunni militants have been making steady advances and may be carving out new havens from which they could carry out attacks against the West, administration spokesmen have insisted that the United States is not actively considering using warplanes or armed drones to strike them.

Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s foreign minister, last year floated the idea that armed American-operated Predator or Reaper drones might be used to respond to the expanding militant network in Iraq. American officials dismissed that suggestion at the time, saying that the request had not come from Mr. Maliki.

By March, however, American experts who visited Baghdad were being told that Iraq’s top leaders were hoping that American air power could be used to strike the militants’ staging and training areas inside Iraq, and help Iraq’s beleaguered forces stop them from crossing into Iraq from Syria.

“Iraqi officials at the highest level said they had requested manned and unmanned U.S. airstrikes this year against ISIS camps in the Jazira desert,” said Kenneth M. Pollack, a former C.I.A. analyst and National Security Council official, who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and who visited Baghdad in early March.

The Wall Street Journal reports that other countries still seem to expect that the US will step in whenever there is a crisis:

Recent events in Iraq show the potential risks of the administration's foreign policy approach. In a speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point last month, Mr. Obama outlined a policy that favors a lighter U.S. military footprint and, where possible, calls for regional allies to take the lead in fighting terrorist threats in their backyards, so American troops don't have to.

But allies have grown to expect the U.S. to take the lead in counterterrorism efforts around the world, officials say, particularly in the Gulf. "Are they willing to step up?" a senior U.S. official said. "It is possible we are victims of our own leadership."

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