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Iraqi officials call for U.S. to step up airstrikes, military aid

Iraqi forces
Iraqi troops take part in tactical training in the southern city of Basra. “We need more airstrikes, more training, new weapons,” said an Iraqi commander in Baghdad.
(Haidar Mohammed Ali / AFP/Getty Images)

Senior Iraqi officials and commanders are calling for intensified U.S. airstrikes and more military aid, arguing that the 10-week-old American-led effort has been too modest to drive Islamic State fighters out of key towns and districts.

The Iraqi complaints signal growing tension between Baghdad and Washington over the pace of the U.S. military operation, which has concentrated airstrikes in neighboring Syria even as car bombs and suicide attacks, many in Baghdad, have killed more than 200 Iraqis in the last week alone.

“We need more from the United States,” Brig. Gen. Abdul Ameer Kamil, commander of Iraqi military operations in Baghdad, said in an interview at the Defense Ministry in the fortified Green Zone, where he meets regularly with U.S. advisors at a joint operations center.

“We need more airstrikes, more training, new weapons — infantry weapons, artillery, tanks,” he said. At least two mortar shells landed in the Green Zone on Tuesday.

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But senior U.S. officials pushed back against the Iraqi criticism, arguing that an array of constraints — heavy rain, concern about potential civilian casualties, restrictions imposed by President Obama and limitations of the Iraqi army — are behind the tempo of the U.S. campaign.

Iraqi army units may not be ready to launch major operations to retake captured cities and territory for several months, even with U.S. advisors and equipment now flowing in, U.S. and Iraqi officials say.

Tens of thousands of Iraqi troops fled before an Islamic State onslaught in the spring and summer, abandoning tanks, armored vehicles, weapons and ammunition that the militants quickly seized. Hundreds of Iraqi soldiers also were captured and executed, according to videos that Islamic State has posted online.

U.S. and coalition forces have launched 601 airstrikes so far against Islamic State fighters and vehicles in Iraq and northern Syria, where the extremist group is based. French and British aircraft have joined the campaign in Iraq, and five Arab nations have flown missions over Syria.

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More than half the total, 327 attacks, have hit targets in Iraq since the campaign began Aug. 8, according to Pentagon figures. U.S. airstrikes in Syria started Sept. 23.

Many Iraqi officials have unrealistic expectations about how far the Obama administration will go to aid their fight against the Sunni militants, said Pentagon and State Department officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in discussing the issue.

Although White House officials initially said the airstrikes would focus first on pushing the militants out of Iraq, the Obama administration has resisted pressure from Iraqi officials and from some Republicans in Congress to do more even as security has worsened around Baghdad.

Obama, who withdrew American troops in 2011, has repeatedly vowed to not send U.S. ground forces back to Iraq.

“It’s easy to ask for more,” said a senior U.S. military official involved in daily decisions about the war. “I appreciate that the tribal leaders, or the Sunnis or the Shia, say we need to go quicker.... We could put in a lot more people, but then we would not be doing what the president has said, and that is for the Iraqis to own it.”

Unlike in Syria, where U.S. aircraft have pounded Islamic State fighters and equipment in Raqqah, the group’s stronghold, and in the besieged border town of Kobani, airstrikes have targeted mostly rural areas in Iraq, from Kurdish districts in the north to the outskirts of Baghdad and in Anbar province to the west.

Some Iraqi officials are pressing the U.S. military to help retake control of towns with significant Shiite Muslim populations.

But U.S. officials worry that America could be drawn into a sectarian civil war on the side of Iraq’s Shiite-dominated army if U.S. forces move too quickly or too aggressively against the Sunni militants. The country’s Sunni minority has been persecuted and disenfranchised in recent years.

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Stephen D. Biddle, a military expert with the nonpartisan Council on  Foreign Relations, said the Obama administration may be limiting the bombing for now and holding out the promise of an escalation in the future to persuade the new prime minister, Haider Abadi, to share more power with minority Sunni Muslims and ethnic Kurds.

U.S. officials applauded on Saturday when Iraq’s parliament approved Abadi’s choice for defense minister: Khaled Obeidi, a Sunni lawmaker from Mosul, which is now controlled by Islamic State. Washington also wants Abadi to set up Sunni militias in Anbar province, a move that Iraqi officials are studying.

Maj. Issa Muhazim Ahmed, an officer on Kamil’s staff, said the Iraqi military needs 50 to 60 airstrikes a day. The U.S. and its allies have focused chiefly on Syria in recent weeks and typically launch a few airstrikes over Iraq each day.

“If you hit Daesh hard across the country every day, it would have a big effect,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

Iraqi politicians from various groups — Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and Christians — complained in interviews that the U.S. military has not done enough to turn the tide of battle.

“The Americans haven’t helped Iraqis liberate a single city,” said Jamila Ubaidi, a Sunni lawmaker from Mosul.

Islamic State “has modern weapons, armored vehicles that the Iraqi army doesn’t have,” she said. “We’re waiting for the Americans to provide something better.”

In meetings with U.S. officials in recent weeks, tribal leaders in Anbar province have pleaded for more airstrikes in Fallouja, which militants captured in the spring. American warplanes conducted one strike north of Fallouja on Monday.

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U.S. Marines fought house to house in Fallouja, then an insurgent stronghold, a decade ago. It proved the bloodiest battle of America’s eight-year war in Iraq.

At a news conference Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby denied suggestions that the U.S. was deliberately limiting the pace of attacks.

“There’s almost an implication in the question that we’re somehow holding back, and that is not the case,” Kirby said. “But there have been limitations because of weather. And there’s also limits placed upon us, particularly from the air, when you’re worried about collateral damage and civilian casualties. So you self-limit yourself to a degree.”

david.zucchino@latimes.com

david.cloud@latimes.com

Zucchino reported from Baghdad and Cloud from Washington.


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