WASHINGTON — A classified military assessment of Iraq’s security forces concludes that many units are so deeply infiltrated by either Sunni extremist informants or Shiite personnel backed by Iran that any Americans assigned to advise Baghdad’s forces could face risks to their safety, according to United States officials.
The report concludes that only about half of Iraq’s operational units are capable enough for American commandos to advise them if the White House decides to help roll back the advances made by Sunni militants in northern and western Iraq over the past month.
Adding to the administration’s dilemma is the assessment’s conclusion that Iraqi forces loyal to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki are now heavily dependent on Shiite militias — many of which were trained in Iran — as well as on advisers from Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force.
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Shiite militias fought American troops after the United States invaded Iraq and might again present a danger to American advisers. But without an American-led effort to rebuild Iraq’s security forces, there may be no hope of reducing the Iraqi government’s dependence on those Iranian-backed militias, officials caution.
The findings underscore the challenges ahead for the Obama administration as it seeks to confront militants with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which has seized major cities in Iraq, all but erased the Syrian-Iraqi border and, on Sunday, staged a raid less than an hour’s drive from Baghdad.
At the center of the administration debate is whether to send more military advisers, weaponry and surveillance systems — and, if so, in what numbers, at what cost and at what levels of risk — to a country that American combat troops left in 2011, but that now teeters on the brink of collapse.
While sending American advisers to Iraq would expose them to risks and could embroil them again in conflict, waiting to act may also limit the administration’s ability to counter ISIS and encourage the formation of a more inclusive government in Baghdad.
“There’s risks to allowing things just to try to resolve themselves, particularly when there are interests that could affect our country,” Lt. Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the head of the military’s secretive Joint Special Operations Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week when asked why the Americans should not let the warring factions in Iraq fight one another.
The Pentagon’s decision this month to rush 200 troops, plus six Apache helicopter gunships and Shadow surveillance drones, to the Baghdad airport was prompted by a classified intelligence assessment that the sprawling complex, the main hub for sending and withdrawing American troops and diplomats, was vulnerable to attack by ISIS fighters, American officials have now disclosed.
“It’s a mess,” said one senior Obama administration official who has been briefed on the draft assessment and who, like two other American officials briefed, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the continuing review and the delicate nature of the assessment.
The draft of about 120 pages is now being reviewed by Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the head of the military’s Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East. General Austin could make changes or request additional information from the assessment teams in Iraq, but a final version is expected to be sent to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other top Pentagon officials this week, officials said.
Rear Adm. John F. Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, declined on Sunday to comment on the draft assessment, saying in a statement, “Though the initial work of the assessment teams is largely complete, senior leaders have yet to formally receive or review it.”
The assessment does not contain specific recommendations. Those will be developed separately by the Central Command and the military’s Joint Staff once the final report is forwarded to the Pentagon and shared with President Obama and his top national security aides.
As ISIS advanced across northern and western Iraq, six teams of American Special Operations forces were rushed in to assess an Iraqi Army that was trained and equipped by the United States at a cost of more than $25 billion, but which experienced a drop-off in training after the American withdrawal and has been greatly handicapped by Mr. Maliki’s push to appoint commanders based more on political loyalty than military skill.
The assessment, which took two weeks to prepare under the guidance of Maj. Gen. Dana J. H. Pittard of the Army, graded the strengths and weaknesses of units down to the brigade level, examining their equipment, ammunition, sectarian makeup, morale, leadership and other indicators. Each unit’s overall capability was rendered in a blunt color-coded chart: green if capable; red if not.
One of the assessment’s conclusions was that Iraqi forces had the ability to defend Baghdad, but not necessary hold all of it, especially against a major attack. Already, the capital has been targeted by ISIS car bombs.
Several retired Army generals who oversaw the effort to build the Iraqi Army before the United States withdrawal said American advisers still could make an important contribution.
“We must not only commit the right number of advisers, but they must go to the right places — in the field with Iraqi security forces,” said Michael D. Barbero, a retired lieutenant general who was in charge of training the Iraqi forces from 2009 to 2011.
“The advisory mission has inherent risks, but they can be mitigated,” he added. “You can put security with them. You can be selective about where you put the advisers. We can apply the lessons learned from dealing with the insider threat in Afghanistan.”
Rick Welch, a retired Army Special Forces colonel who worked with tribes in Iraq, said that advisers could encourage the Iraqi government to focus its attacks on ISIS and not its Sunni political opponents.
“Advisers could focus the military effort with more precision and discourage attacks on the Sunni population, which would remove one of the grievances of the Sunnis and help the political discussions go forward,” said Mr. Welch, who added that advisers should be embedded with Sunni tribal leaders as well as Iraqi military units.
James M. Dubik, a retired Army lieutenant general who oversaw the training of the Iraqi Army in 2007 and 2008, said that Iraq’s security forces could make gains against ISIS even if only half its divisions were effective, but that an advisory effort was very important.
“Even if half was whipped into good enough shape,” he said, “that would be enough to turn the tide.”
The new report’s findings not only reinforce the initial confidential military assessments of the Iraqi forces but also align with public comments in recent days by senior Pentagon officials, notably Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
At a Pentagon news conference on July 3, General Dempsey noted the while Iraqi security forces had stiffened and were capable of defending Baghdad, they were not capable on their own of launching a counteroffensive and reversing the ISIS gains.
Mr. Obama has ruled out sending combat troops back to Iraq. And General Dempsey also emphasized any American military involvement in Iraq would be different than in the past.
General Dempsey has signaled, however, that airstrikes are still an option.
In an interview with National Public Radio on June 27, General Dempsey ticked off three potential aims: targeting “high-value individuals who are the leadership” of ISIS; protecting critical infrastructure, like dams; and “blunting attacks by massed” ISIS forces — a possible assault on Baghdad, for instance.
See also article at The Daily Mail.