Iraq Refuses US Ground Forces After Obama “Special Forces” Announcement

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Published Thursday, February 12, 2015

Baghdad has not requested foreign ground forces to battle the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jafaari said Thursday after Barack Obama called on Wednesday for military operations that stop short of a full-scale invasion.

In Sydney, the Iraqi minister said ground forces were not part of his government's plan.

"We have never asked for a ground forces contribution," he said through an interpreter after meetings with Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

"We have established a set of guidelines," for the international coalition, Jafaari told a press conference, stressing that this was to provide air support for Iraqi forces, training and intelligence.

"The message that Iraq has submitted to the (United Nations) security council never included a request for ground forces to enter Iraqi territory to conduct such operations."

However he added: "We are at the beginning of a major war and the situation could be changing."

The minister noted that Iraqi armed forces were advancing against ISIS and had no shortage of troops.

"There is no doubt that the Iraqi armed forces need aerial support, in addition to intelligence information," he said. "No country has regular armies or ground troops present in Iraq except for providing training and counseling."

Since August, the US military — along with allies including Australia — has been conducting a campaign of airstrikes against the jihadists in Iraq and Syria.

The coalition of around 60 mainly Western and Arab states was formed several months after ISIS swept across northern Iraq, seizing swathes of territory and proclaiming a caliphate in parts of the country as well as regions in neighboring Syria.

However, the effect of the open-ended US-led air campaign remains the subject of debate, with the White House saying the militants have been damaged by the strikes and critics pointing to ISIS’ advances and battlefield successes despite the raids.

With the group reportedly losing territory and large numbers of fighters, Obama has now promised to back up the strikes with targeted covert ground-based attacks if necessary.

"If we had actionable intelligence about a gathering of ISIL leaders, and our partners didn't have the capacity to get them, I would be prepared to order our special forces to take action," Obama said, using another acronym for ISIS.

Bishop said Australia's role in Iraq was restricted to aerial support, training, advice and intelligence.

"We have not sought to expand our role to include combat troops," she said.

Australia was also part of the coalition that invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003 to oust Saddam Hussein.

Implications of Obama’s move

The US president said Wednesday that the legislation could authorize certain strikes involving US special forces and would be limited to three years.

Obama's move signals a ramping up of pressure on ISIS as Baghdad prepares for a major ground offensive, expected within months. It would also provide a firmer legal basis to prosecute a months-old military campaign.

In a letter to lawmakers, Obama said that "our coalition is on the offensive," adding that ISIS is "on the defensive" and is "going to lose," as he urged Congress for authority to take the fight with the extremists beyond their current footholds in Syria and Iraq if necessary.

With the recent death of US hostage Kayla Mueller and the killing of three other US hostages, Obama has been under pressure to re-examine his strategy.

In order to win the backing of the Republican-controlled Congress and overcome jitters within his own Democratic party, Obama placed limits on his power to deploy the military in both form and scope, giving his successor the opportunity to reevaluate the situation with Congress.

The proposed legislation does not authorize "enduring offensive ground combat operations," according to a draft sent to Congress. It would also "terminate three years after the date of the enactment of this joint resolution, unless reauthorized."

Obama will also have to report to Congress every six months.

But those limitations were not enough to assuage the concerns of the longest-serving Democratic senator, Patrick Leahy, and others.

"I have serious concerns about the breadth and ambiguity of this proposal," Leahy said in a statement.

With bitter arguments over previous wars still seared in US political memory, Obama was quick to claim this would not be a sequel to Iraq or Afghanistan, saying that he had no intention to see the United States getting "dragged back into another prolonged ground war in the Middle East."

"Local forces on the ground who know their countries best are best positioned to take the ground fight to ISIL," he said.

But Republicans have complained that ruling out ground forces could hamper military strategy.

"If we are going to defeat this enemy, we need a comprehensive military strategy and a robust authorization, not one that limits our options," House Speaker John Boehner said.

"Any authorization for the use of military force must give our military commanders the flexibility and authorities they need to succeed and protect our people."

Damascus, Iran and other critics opposed to US involvement in the conflict with ISIS have pointed out that Washington, in partnership with its Gulf allies including Saudi Arabia, played a role in the formation and expansion of extremist groups like ISIS by arming, financing and politically empowering armed opposition groups in Syria.

It is worth noting that the US House of Representatives adopted a $584.2 billion annual defense spending bill on December 4, which includes emergency funding for military operations against ISIS and training and equipping so-called moderate Syrian rebels. However, it doesn’t include providing any humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees.

US lacks intel to vet Syrian refugees

US officials told lawmakers Wednesday that American authorities were facing a difficult task screening Syrians applying for asylum in the United States because of a shortage of intelligence from the war-torn country.

While the US has not shied away from providing military support to Syrian rebels, but has only taken in an insignificant number of refugees, claiming that they could be potential “terrorists.”

Michael Steinbach, assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said the US government had data and intelligence to draw on when it performed background checks on refugees from Iraq in recent years but in the case of Syria, there was "a lack of information."

"The difference is, in Iraq, we were there on the ground collecting, so we had databases to use...The concern is in Syria, the lack of our footprint on the ground in Syria, that the databases won't have the information we need," Steinbach told the House Homeland Security Committee.

"You are talking about a country that is a failed state, that does not have any infrastructure so to speak, " he said.

Lawmakers at the hearing voiced dismay at the possibility that some of the male refugees heading to America could be potential jihadists.

The US was already working to stop foreign fighters from returning to America and admitting large numbers of refugees "would be a federally sanctioned welcome party, if you will, to potential terrorists in the United States," said Michael McCaul, Republican chairman of the committee, adding that such a move would be a "huge mistake."

The head of the National Counterterrorism Center, Nicholas Rasmussen, told lawmakers there would be a thorough screening effort.

"What we want to be able to do is apply the full weight of US intelligence community holdings to the vetting and screening process so that we can unearth any information that we may have in our holdings that gives us concern about particular individuals," he said.

Syrian refugees are now the largest group under the UN refugee agency's mandate, with more than three million forced to flee the country due to the conflict. The UNHCR has warned the number could rise to 4.27 million by next December.

Washington has decided to let in more Syrians displaced by the civil war and announced plans in December to review about 9,000 refugee cases referred by the UN refugee agency. US officials told AFP on Wednesday that nearly 11,000 cases referred by the UNHCR will be examined.

Since the conflict erupted in 2011, the United States has admitted 512 Syrians into the country, according to the State Department.

Amnesty International said that wealthy nations have only taken in a "pitiful" number of the millions of refugees uprooted by Syria's conflict, placing the burden on the country's ill-equipped neighbors.

In a statement ahead of a December donors' conference in Geneva, the London-based rights group blasted as shocking the failure of rich nations to host more refugees.

"Around 3.8 million refugees from Syria are being hosted in five main countries within the region: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt," said Amnesty.

"Only 1.7 percent of this number have been offered sanctuary by the rest of the world," the rights group added.

Moreover, the UN's World Food Program (WFP) said early December it needed $64 million (51 million euros) to fund its food voucher program for one month alone, and that "many donor commitments remain unfulfilled." After donors bail, WFP had to resort to social media to crowdfund for its budget.

The US annual defense bill would secure WFP’s humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees for roughly 700 years.

(AFP, Reuters, Al-Akhbar)

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