Sunni militants are consolidating their hold on a swath of Iraq and now threaten the integrity of the Iraqi state, U.S. military and intelligence officials said.
The main insurgent group, an al-Qaeda offshoot known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, is gaining strength through a Sunni uprising against the Shiite-led government, according to an intelligence official who briefed reporters by phone yesterday on the condition of anonymity to to discuss intelligence matters.
ISIL now controls most of a “central swath” of Iraq, is “solidifying gains” and poses “a legitimate threat to Baghdad,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Defense Department spokesman, told reporters in a briefing at the Pentagon.
The militants “are killing and maiming, but they’re also grabbing ground,” Kirby said. “They are behaving like an organized force.”
The dire assessments point to the challenge that the Iraqi government faces -- even with potential U.S. airstrikes -- in trying to defeat a few thousand ISIL fighters bolstered by thousands more disaffected Sunnis, captured weapons and money from looting banks and extorting businesses. ISIL’s advance threatens Iraqi military control of the large Balad air base northwest of Baghdad, the intelligence official said.
The U.S. has pressed Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to form a more inclusive government that gives more say to Sunnis and Kurds, and some politicians in the country have called on him to step down. In a televised address today, the Shiite premier spurned calls that he relinquish power as a “coup against the constitution and the process.”
ISIL may jeopardize some of its gains if it overreaches by advancing to Baghdad and beyond, Shiite-majority areas hostile to the Sunni insurgency, the U.S. intelligence official said.
A small contingent of U.S. forces has arrived in Iraq to gather intelligence for possible U.S. airstrikes and establish an operations center in Baghdad, Kirby said. Forty troops already stationed at the U.S. embassy have begun the new assessment mission, and 90 more from the Middle East region have arrived in Baghdad, bringing to 130 the number of personnel involved, Kirby said.
The U.S. began conducting regular surveillance flights over Iraq with both manned and drone aircraft on June 13 at the request of the Iraqi government, according to the Pentagon. Now 30 to 35 such flights are conducted daily.
While the crisis has escalated quickly, the U.S. intelligence community has warned officials over the past year about the deteriorating security situation, including the weaknesses in the Iraqi military and the political strains, the intelligence official said. More recently, the intelligence agencies provided tactical warning before ISIL’s takeover two weeks ago of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, the official said.
Those comments may fuel questions in Congress and elsewhere about whether President Barack Obama, for whom ending the Iraq war is a legacy matter, has been slow to react to a terrorist group whose advance jeopardizes a decade of U.S. efforts to build a stable democracy following President George W. Bush’s invasion in 2003.
The intelligence official wouldn’t comment on assessments about U.S. military options, such as the airstrikes sought by Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. The official also wouldn’t comment on whether ISIL has obtained weapons that would threaten U.S. warplanes conducting airstrikes.