The Obama administration’s limited challenge to the Iraqi Islamists responsible for the barbaric beheading of two American journalists has been further diluted and sidetracked by its partnership with Iran.
President Barack Obama has agreed to harness the US military effort in Iraq to Tehran’s top strategic priority, which is to stall the semiautonomous Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government’s drive for full independence, DEBKA Weekly’s sources in Washington, Tehran and Irbil report.
America has therefore rearranged its own priorities in Iraq to meet the following goals:
1. The war on Al Qaeda in Iraq, occasioning the first direct military and intelligence collaboration between the US and Iran, is to be the crucible for their broader collaboration in resolving regional problems in the Middle East and Persian Gulf.
2. Preventing the KRG’s President Massoud Barzani from riding on the back of the war on Al Qaeda to full independence.
By putting those goals first, Washington and Tehran have dropped the counterterrorism operation against ISIS in Iraq to third place on their scale of priorities. This has had the effect of tying the hands of the forces on the ground which should be fighting the Islamists in Iraq. Even those who do engage the Islamists are short of clear direction.
Kurdish leaders spurn US military advice to go for Mosul
According to our sources, the American military advisers alongside the Kurdish government in Irbil (around 1,500 members of US special forces) have discounted Kurdish Peshmerga operations in the provinces of Diyala in the east, Salahuddin north of Baghdad and Nineveh in the north. They have told Kurdish leaders that these operations are worthless militarily and ineffectual for reducing ISIS’s tactical edge.
The only way to change the course of the war, say the American advisers, is for the Peshmerga to launch a full-scale offensive to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest town, from the Islamists. With Mosul in Kurdish hands, they believe IS’ would be unable to hold out in the rest of Iraq
Wednesday, President Obama announced that another 350 US soldiers have been assigned to Iraq.
The Kurds have no intention of acting on the US advisers’ recommendation because they suspect them of an ulterior motive. They see Obama’s overriding concern as having shifted away from destroying IS to preventing them from attaining independence. They believe this policy was crafted with Tehran, which is intent on stamping out the slightest mark of Kurdish self-rule. (Iran has a Kurdish minority of 9 million, 7 percent of the total population).
The object of a Kurdish assault on Mosul (a town of 2 million) would be therefore to mire their autonomous army in a hopeless, never-ending war.
The Kurds accordingly promised politely to consider the American plan, but only if they were provided with American amphibian landing craft for a surprise attack on IS from the Tigris River and air cover in the form of US assault helicopters.
Historic first: US and Iranian special forces fight together
The Tigris cuts Mosul into two districts – the left bank in the west, where the Kurdish neighborhood is located and the right bank which is under IS control.
Washington, while repeatedly promising to arm the Kurds, is ignoring their requests, just as the Kurds are ignoring US military counsel. And so the brave story of US cooperation with the Iraqi army and Kurdish militia rests on shaky legs.
(Find out who is going around the US as the Kurds’ arms suppliers in a separate article)
DEBKA Weekly’s military experts report that the Iraqi army no longer exists except on paper. All its constituent divisions fell apart in combat with Islamist forces, at least four lost their weapons and there is no way to assemble even one combat task unit.
The Kurdish military, in contrast, is willing and able to fight the Islamists on its doorstep, but only according to its own operational rules, not the American game plan – certainly not with Iranian military and intelligence input.
In the last week of August, the Middle East witnessed for the first time in its history a joint US-Iranian military operation. It was conducted by US special forces and Iranian Revolutionary Guards Al Qods Brigades, who fought together, at the head of Kurdish and Iraqi troops, and won the battle for breaking ISIS’ 70-day siege on the small Iraqi town of Amerli in the Tooz District of the Saluhaddin Governate in northern Iraq, about 100 km from the Iranian border.
Amerli has a population of 26,000, mainly members of the Turkoman ethnic community.
The ayatollahs make the running – but not on their nuclear aspirations
Iran refused to tolerate the presence of the Islamist radicals so close to its border and the Obama administration was willing to pitch in to root them out.
By this battle, Obama established a historic landmark, which would stand at least for the duration of his second term and possibly as a hand-me-down for his successor, when he/she moves into the White House in January 2016. In the foreseeable future, the president’s historic détente with Revolutionary Shiite Iran will increasingly dominate America’s relations with the Sunni Muslim, as their collaborative war on Al Qaeda and other radical Sunni elements gains momentum.
The US president has declared often that he aspires to heal the 35 years of animosity between the United States and Iran. The ayatollahs have made the running – not through concessions on their nuclear program, on which they stand firm, but in their partnership for destroying the radical Islamists overrunning Iraq next door.
To lure Obama, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei took the extreme step of dumping the Al Qods Brigades chief, Gen. Qassem Soleimani (as first reported in DEBKA Weekly 648 on Aug. 29) – despite his almost legendary feats in Syria and Iraq on behalf of the Iranian revolution.
Soleimani leads Iranian-US victory in Amerli
This week, Khamenei turned out to have decided that Soleimani was too valuable to push out to the cold. Formally replaced as Al Qods chief by his faithful and long-serving deputy, the 44-year old Hossein Hamedani, Western intelligence sources reported he was relieved of the Iraqi file and left only with the Syrian dossier. Bashar Assad largely owes his survival to Soleimani’s efforts.
This too turned out to be misinformation. DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources have obtained an exclusive photo of Soleimani taken Wednesday, Sept. 3, at the site of the joint US-Iranian Amerli victory.
For now, US-Iranian cooperation has not extended to the Syrian arena, which figures at present much larger in Abu Musa Al-Baghdadi aspirations than the Iraqi battlefield.
Speaking in Talinn Wednesday, Obama vowed: “Our bottom line is to destroy and degrade the Islamic State” who in three weeks foully murdered two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
All the experts agree that this cannot be achieved without going for their core commands in Syria.
However, the US president equivocated on his vow with the rider: “It will take time to roll back the Islamists.”