US Commanders Talk Iraqis out of Pulling Troops Back to Baghdad

Iraqi security forces and Shiite militiamen patrol Jurf al-Sakhar, 43 miles south of Baghdad, Iraq. (AP photo)
Iraqi security forces and Shiite militiamen patrol Jurf al-Sakhar, 43 miles south of Baghdad, Iraq. (AP photo)

U.S. commanders talked the Iraqi government out of pulling troops from the field to defend Baghdad against suicide attacks coming from ISIS-held Fallujah and other militant strong points in Anbar province, a U.S. military spokesman said Wednesday.

"As of today, we have not seen the Iraqi government redeploying troops to Baghdad," Army Col. Steve Warren said. "There was some discussion of it but they changed their minds," he said in a possible reflection of growing friction between the U.S. and Iraqi military and political officials on the U.S. plan to focus resources on retaking northwestern Mosul.

Army Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, also said the Baghdad attacks posed a threat to the overall U.S. strategy.

"If this is not addressed quickly, it could cause [the Baghdad government] to have to take action to divert forces and divert their political focus on that, as opposed to things like Mosul or finishing up their activities out in Anbar," Votel told CNN.

Currently, about half of the Iraqi security forces are committed to the defense and policing of Baghdad, Warren said, but Iraqi officials told U.S. advisers in a recent meeting that they needed more troops in the capital to stop ISIS truck and car bomb attacks that have centered on Shia neighborhoods.

A pullback to Baghdad would go against the U.S. plan to "accelerate" offensives in the Tigris and Euphrates River valleys with the ultimate goal of retaking Mosul, the main ISIS stronghold in Iraq.

In the meeting with the Iraqi officials, "we recommended to them that the forces they had earmarked to fighting ISIL in the field remain in the field," Warren said, using another acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

"That was the recommendation we made to them. They took it," he, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, said in a video briefing from Baghdad to the Pentagon.

Warren said the Iraqis had argued for repositioning forces but "we said, 'Hey, we think you ought to keep the forces out in the field.' That's what they ended up doing." Although the Iraqis appeared to be having second thoughts about the strategy, "we are undeterred," Warren said.

The already struggling Baghdad government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has been challenged again by the wave of suicide attacks claimed by ISIS in the past week that have killed at least 200 in Baghdad, according to the Associated Press.

A suicide bombing on Tuesday in a marketplace in the northern, mainly Shia district of al-Shaab killed 38 people and wounded over 70, while a car bomb in the nearby Sadr City neighborhood left at least 19 more dead and 17 wounded, Reuters reported.

On April 30, followers of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stormed Parliament in Baghdad's "Green Zone" to protest the lack of security in Baghdad and the failure of the Abadi government to root out corruption.

Despite the turmoil, Warren said there were no immediate plans to boost security for the U.S. Embassy located in the Green Zone. "As of now, we don't believe we need any additional security," he said.

Mainly-Sunni Fallujah, which has not been a priority for the U.S. or the Shia-dominated Baghdad government backed by Iran, was believed to serve as the main base for suicide bombers 40 miles from Baghdad, Warren said.

"Certainly, finishing the clearance of Anbar will contribute to the security of Baghdad, there's no question about it," he said. "Fallujah remains in ISIL control and, therefore, remains a safe haven for this enemy where they can construct their bombs and plan their operations in relatively close proximity to Baghdad."

However, he added, "Our advice to the Iraqi government is to keep the pressure up" on ISIS in the field rather than falling back on Baghdad. "The way to win is to expel ISIL completely from Iraq, to wipe them out."

To bolster the Iraqi forces, Warren said the U.S. recently delivered equipment including 800 sets of body armor, soldiers' kits to outfit a brigade, 154 trucks, two bulldozers and 100 AT-4 shoulder-fired rocket launchers. The AT-4s have proven to be an effective weapon for the Iraqi forces and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters against suicide truck and car bombers, often used by ISIS to spearhead ground attacks.

The effort to expel ISIS was competing against a growing humanitarian crisis in Iraq, including reports of starvation in Fallujah, that the Abadi government has been hard pressed to meet with an economy in freefall because of slumping oil prices.

The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported Wednesday that "more than 3 million Iraqis have been displaced across the country since the start of 2014 and nearly 220,000 are refugees in other countries.

"Mass executions, systematic rape and horrendous acts of violence are widespread, and human rights and rule of law are under constant attack. By the end of 2016, it is estimated that over 11 million Iraqis may be in need of humanitarian assistance," UNHCR said. "Communities, authorities and infrastructure are at breaking point."

Warren and other U.S. officials, including special envoy to the coalition against ISIS Brett McGurk, have characterized the suicide attack onslaught against Baghdad as a desperation move by a terrorist group battered by U.S. airstrikes and gradually losing territory and sources of funding.

The U.S. now estimated that ISIS had lost 45 percent of the territory it once controlled in Iraq and about 20 percent in Syria, where Russian troops remained a potent force in support of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad despite Russian President Vladimir Putin's pledges of a withdrawal, Warren said.

"Their capabilities are largely the same" since the Russians entered Syria in force last September, Warren said, and their statements about pulling out were a "false claim."

The Russian forces in Syria now included elite Spetznaz troops from the Russian GRU military intelligence service, and the Russians have also set up what appeared to be a permanent base outside the historic Syrian city of Palmyra in eastern Syria, Warren said.

"They have established an operating base outside of Palmyra. They're building it up," he said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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