Iraqi Islamic State terrorists released a video online Tuesday night, Aug. 19, purportedly showing the beheading of American photo-journalist James Wright Foley, 40, abducted in Syria 22 months ago, after threatening to punish the US and Britain for air strikes in Iraq.
Also visible was another kidnapped US journalist, Stevent Sotloff, who had been missing from northern Syria since July 2013. Under the caption “A Message to America,” it was indicated that Sotlof was being held hostage to the next United States actions in Iraq. It is not clear where the videotaped atrocity had been filmed whether in Syria or Iraq.
It was posted as Iraqi and Kurdish forces awaited tensely for Barack Obama to decide whether to expand US involvement to other sectors of the war against IS, after American and British air strikes tipped the balance of the battle for the Mosul dam. The tape aimed at deterring any foreign intervention in the Iraqi-Kurdish struggle to contain the Islamist advance.
Obama held back from making a public statement about the beheading until the video could be formally authenticated. "If genuine, we are appalled by the brutal murder of an innocent American journalist and we express our deepest condolences to his family and friends," White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement.
The audio revealed a voiceover in a pure British accent. This was noted in London and prompted UK Prime Minister David Cameron to cut short his vacation and return to Downing Street Wednesday, to take charge of discussions on the British connection with US efforts in support of the forces fighting IS in Iraq.
At least 500 British Muslims have joined IS – possibly twice that number have joined Islamist forces in Syria and Iraq.
As for the situation in Iraq, it is still not clear if Kurdish Peshmerga troops backed by US air strikes have finally wrested the strategic Mosul dam from Islamist control. After its recovery was reported and confirmed Monday by President Obama, who said in Washington: “Iraqi and Kurdish forces, backed by American air strikes, had captured a strategically important dam near Mosul,” witnesses on the spot attested to debkafile’s military sources that renewed fighting had erupted.
It appeared that IS had raised reinforcements from Mosul, just 15 km away to take the strategic dam, the largest in Iraq, back, because they own a strong interest in holding onto it. Blowing it up would inundate large parts of the country and cause tens of thousands of deaths. And so the threat itself is a powerful psychological lever. On the other hand, IS would think twice about carrying it out, because most of the victims would be Sunni Iraqis, whose support and sympathy the group courts.
Control of the dam also provides the town of Mosul, which the Islamic State captured two months ago, with a good defense line as well as a jumping-off position against the Kurdish capital of Irbil, headquarters of the Peshmerga and some 1,000 US servicemen deployed there.
debkafile’s military and intelligence sources report that the Al Qaeda Iraqi wing has been sighted gearing up for a counter-offensive against the Peshmerga and Iraqi army. Their commander, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, has taken some of Saddam Hussein’s most professional and experienced army officers as advisers.
It is almost impossible for US and British spy satellites and aerial surveillance to predict where the Islamists will strike next after the shocking video. They already control vast areas of northern western, central and eastern Iraq, roughly the size of Britain and Ireland combined, with a front line 1.600 km long.
They have proved they are able to flit across long distances at speed, mingling with indigenous populations, which are friendly enough to keep the Sunni jihadis supplied with intelligence, food, fuel and medical care.
The Islamic State therefore enjoys a substantial strategic advantage on the ground, to offset its relatively small numbers (estimated at 35,000) – even when pitted against the far larger Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga supported by US and British air strikes.
The Peshmerga has mustered some 200,000 fighting men, drawing on its Turkish PKK brethren and Syrian Kurdish militias, as well as Kurdish volunteers from other countries, intent on saving the only Kurdish semiautonomous republic, the KRG, from being overrun by Islamic terrorists.
But Kurdish troops are starved of weapons and ordnance; they have no air force or even helicopters for air cover, and lack armor and self-propelled artillery.
The Islamists in contrast are heavily armed with the latest American tanks and self-propelled artillery taken booty from the 30,000 Iraqi soldiers who fled from their advance.
Tuesday, Iraqi forces launched and halted an offensive to recapture Tikrit, home town of executed dictator Saddam Hussein, in the face of fierce resistance from Islamic State fighters. This was the seventh Iraqi military bid to recapture the predominantly Sunni town of Tikrit, which fell to IS in late June, and which commands the highways linking Baghdad to the north and the east.
This attempt had special significance, because it was the first Iraqi military operation since Haidar Al-Abadi took over as prime minister of Iraq last week from fellow-Shiite Nouri al-Maliki. The new man was heavily backed by the Obama administration in the belief that he would have better luck than his predecessor in persuading Sunni leaders to support a major campaign to halt the Islamic State.
But the operation was doomed from the start by the composition of the assault units. They consisted of poorly trained Iraqi Shiite militiamen, accompanied by Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers, under the command of Al Qods Brigades chief Gen. Qassam Soleimani.
Sending a Shiite force commanded by Iranian officers to recapture a Sunni town like Tikrit was scarcely likely to appeal to the town-dwellers, draw the Sunni factions fighting with IS over to the national Iraqi army, or indeed make them fans of the new prime minister.