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Are Americans Ready to Return to Iraq?

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News came last week that Joshua Wheeler, a leader of the elite U.S. Army unit commonly known as Delta Force, was killed while assisting Kurdish commandos in a raid on an ISIS-occupied prison in northern Iraq. The report was an unexpected reminder that the United States remains very much involved in Iraq, nearly four years after the last American troops officially departed the country.

U.S. President Barack Obama -- who was elected in 2008 in large part to extract America from two costly and unpopular wars -- now finds himself engaged in covert quasi-warfare in some of the region's worst hotspots. While the administration stresses that these operations are explicitly designed to "train, advise, and assist" friendly forces on the ground, it is becoming more apparent, both in word and in deed, that the United States is returning to combat in Iraq.

In a sense, however, the United States never really left. U.S. forces have in fact been filtering back into Iraq for more than a year now. These American servicemen and women number approximately 3,500, and they are engaged in a variety of activities and operations on the front lines against the Islamic State group, report Eli Lake and Josh Rogin of Bloomberg View:

"According to U.S. and Kurdish officials, the U.S. now runs an operations center in Irbil staffed by a special operations task force whose work is so classified its name is a state secret. The task force has worked in recent months to identify and locate senior leaders of the Islamic State and participated in the mission last Thursday, in which a member of the Army's Delta Force was killed freeing prisoners from an Islamic State prison in Hawija.

[...]

"The secret U.S. military presence in northern Iraq doesn't end there. Highly trained American special operations forces known as Joint Terminal Attack Controllers, who help paint targets for airstrikes of Islamic State vehicles, camps and buildings, also operate in northern Iraq. U.S. officials tell us these controllers also work closely with other Western countries and the Iraqis to avoid collisions and direct air traffic for drones and other aircraft to support the mission against the Islamic State."

We are perhaps witnessing the fruit of these labors in the Hawija prison raid, as well as in recent operations in the Yazidi stronghold of Sinjar (also known as Shingal), where U.S. warplanes have reportedly been assisting Kurdish peshmerga forces in an effort to repel Islamic State fighters who have been occupying that part of the Nineveh region in northern Iraq since last year.

Outside of news clippings and the occasional Pentagon comment, however, observers have very little to go on in regard to American combat activity in the north of the country. Five U.S. special forces personnel have been injured in the past year, but how -- and by whom -- remains somewhat unclear. The Daily Beast's Nancy Youssef explains:

"As the Obama administration holds to the increasingly dubious claim that U.S. troops are not engaged in combat against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, the Pentagon is withholding details about its wounded that would give key insights into the kind of fight American troops are facing in Iraq.

[...]

"Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter repeatedly said the U.S. is in the region to ‘combat ISIS' but stopped short of saying the troops themselves are engaged in combat, even after senators repeatedly asked for clarity. Rather, Carter said Wheeler died in combat, in an isolated incident, while performing heroic acts."

Some U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are leery, however, of a protracted, poorly defined mission in Iraq. "I think they are way beyond their legal authority right now," U.S. Senator Tim Kaine told Al-Monitor, referring to the White House. "I think it's time for Congress to get into this."

Congress will press carefully on the matter though, so as not to appear as stifling the president in the fight against a jihadist army that most Americans increasingly agree must be defeated, even if it eventually requires ground troops.

Around the Region

Kurdistan's other crisis. While Kurdish peshmerga forces fight alongside Americans to repel ISIS from Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan is being weighed down by another crisis. The Heritage Foundation's Joshua Meservey details the problem in a RealClearWorld exclusive:

"In the Kurdistan region of Iraq, more than a million Syrian refugees and displaced Iraqis are sheltering from the Islamic State group. The crisis unfolding there has implications as profound as the one in Europe and other areas of the Middle East, but it has drawn far less attention and aid.

[...]

"The cost of caring for so many dispossessed people is straining Kurdistan's modest resources. Its estimated 2013 GDP was $25 billion, compared to Europe's 2014 GDP that was more than $16 trillion. Its oil-dependent finances were already being squeezed due to plunging global oil prices, and there is the cost of fighting a war along a more than 600-mile front. The regional government also accuses the Iraqi government of withholding for more than a year its federal budget share, which Baghdad had already slashed in February 2014. The Kurdistan region, with a native population of only 5.4 million, now hosts more than a million refugees -- many of whom require shelter, food, and medical care."

A divide in Iraq's Dawa Party. Heading south to Iraq's capital city of Baghdad, members of the Dawa Party -- one of the most influential Shiite political organizations in the country -- are waging a different kind of battle. Al-Monitor's Ali Mamouri has the story:

"The Dawa Party is at the moment divided into two parts. [Prime Minister] Abadi's bloc wants to preserve close relations with the United States, keep some distance between Baghdad and Tehran, avoid hostile relations with Saudi Arabia and bring about national reconciliation, including good relations with the Kurds and Sunnis. [Ex-Prime Minister] Maliki's bloc, however, has explicitly aligned itself with Iran, is hostile toward Saudi Arabia and the United States to the extent of suggesting Abadi approach Russia and is unwaveringly pro-Shiite, including backing for Shiite militias. On Oct. 27, the Maliki bloc withdrew its support from Abadi following the prime minister's appointment of Imad al-Khersan as secretary-general of the Cabinet on Oct. 20. Khersan is an Iraqi American who worked with the US occupation administrator Paul Bremer as an American official after 2003."

Erdogan's lasting legacy -- food? Finally, Pinar Tremblay reviews the rise of Black Sea cuisine in Istanbul, and how the country's current president aided its ascendance:

"Although born and raised in Istanbul, Erdogan's ancestral roots are in Rize, a northeastern province on the Black Sea coast. The region with steep mountains receives high levels of rain and has limited fertile land that can be cultivated.

"This has led to emigration. Yet until the last decade, there were only a few restaurants specializing in Black Sea dishes in Istanbul despite the heavy population of Black Sea emigrants.

[...]

"Today, Black Sea restaurants are so popular in Istanbul that they have become chains. Fasuli operates five branches in Istanbul. Its walls, like those in Italian restaurants or in diners in the United States, are decorated with photos of famous people who are frequent customers. You can see Erdogan in the VIP Gold room and his ministers in a VIP photo on their webpage as well. Employing young family members, Fasuli serves a basic menu. Its most popular item is fasulye, white bean stew. It is slow cooked, preferably in clay pots over wood fire. But the most important ingredient is the beans; they must be from the Ispir region of Erzurum. Ispir beans are quite small, easy to cook and have a natural sweet taste."

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