Saturday, February 24, 2018

Iraqi leader focuses on Baghdad

BAGHDAD — 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, the Associated Press reported Tuesday, citing Iraqi officials.

Shiite militias responding to a call to arms by Iraq's top cleric also are 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 Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

With each sect focused on self-interests, the situation on the ground is increasingly looking like the fractured state U.S. leaders have hoped to avoid.

Secretary of State John Kerry met with Kurdish leaders Tuesday in Irbil. "We are facing a new reality and a new Iraq," the top Kurdish leader, Massoud Barzani, told Kerry.

Two weeks after a series of disastrous battlefield setbacks in the north and west, Maliki is struggling to devise an effective strategy to repel the relentless advances by militants of ISIS, 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.

Government forces backed by helicopter gunships have also fought for a week to defend Iraq's largest oil refinery in Baiji, 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, 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 ISIS 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 men.

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 Maliki's office, as well as the U.S. Embassy.

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 operations troops will arrive in days, bringing the total to nearly 200.

Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, also said the United States 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.

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