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U.S. rushes to bolster Iraq with drones and missiles in fight against militants

December 26, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The United Nations estimates more than 8,000 people have been killed in the latest surge of violence in Iraq, prompting the Pentagon to bolster the country's ability to battle the al-Qaida militants behind many of the attacks. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Michael Gordon of The New York Times.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Two years after U.S. troops left Iraq, its government is battling Sunni Muslim extremists, and now the Pentagon is sending over firepower to help in the fight.

Hari Sreenivasan reports.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Scenes of carnage have become all too common for the people of Iraq this year. All told, the United Nations estimates, more than 8,000 Iraqis have died in a surge of violence not seen since at least 2008.

The latest came Christmas Day, when at least 37 people died in car bombings that targeted Christian areas of Baghdad. Now The New York Times reports the U.S. is rushing to bolster Iraq’s ability to battle al-Qaida insurgents behind many of the attacks. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appealed for the help when he met with President Obama in Washington two months ago.

During that same visit, he detailed his nation’s dilemma.

PRIME MINISTER NOURI AL-MALIKI, Iraq (through interpreter): Terrorists came back to Iraq when the conflict started in Syria. Groups like al-Qaida and the Nusra Front found there’s another chance to benefit from the political conflict and create terror in Iraq. So, the terrorists found a second chance.

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HARI SREENIVASAN: The U.S. assistance being sent to Baghdad includes Hellfire missiles to supplement the Iraqi government’s nearly exhausted supply and ScanEagle reconnaissance drones to help map and track the militant network. They will be concentrated in Iraq’s western desert, near the Syrian border region.

And I’m joined now by Michael Gordon, who reported this story for The New York Times.

So, first, how bad do the Iraqis needs these weapons?

MICHAEL GORDON, The New York Times: Well, they do need the weapons.

What they need is the capability, because Iraq has a substantial ground force and police force. But what they really lack is the capability — capability to go after mobile terrorist targets. And what’s happening in western and northern Iraq is al-Qaida of Iraq has reconstituted itself under another banner and it’s moving around in caravans.

It’s taking over towns and cities, intimidating the population, and it even has training camps and staging areas in western Iraq. And without an air-to-ground capability, which they have a very limited one, they can’t really take on this threat too well.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is what we’re giving them enough?

MICHAEL GORDON: There’s a good question about that.

I think what we’re giving them is probably not enough. It’s probably what each political system allows. You know, if you really wanted to go after this threat in a serious way, if American forces were still in Iraq, for example, with air and ground forces, what you would do is, you would go after them with airstrikes, attack helicopters.

You would use armed drones, as we have used in other parts of the world. It’s a perfect target for that. It’s an al-Qaida franchise, after all. But we’re not giving them armed drones, even though the Iraqi foreign minister has floated the idea of requesting them, because a formal request for the drones hasn’t come from Iraqi prime minister. And also I think the White House is reluctant to take that step, so we’re giving them kind of a work-around capability.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So this is what we’re willing to give. And it seems that they’re also buying from the Russians and others.

MICHAEL GORDON: It’s what we’re willing to give and it’s what they’re willing to ask for at this point in time. I mean, asking for an American airstrike in western Iraq is a big step for the Iraqi prime minister.

So what they’re asking for is — they’re actually buying them. We’re not giving them. They’re buying 75 Hellfire missiles, and they’re attached to sort of a Cessna plane. It’s almost like a Rube Goldberg contraption…

HARI SREENIVASAN: Yes.

MICHAEL GORDON: … which flies in on a target, which basically they will be told about mainly through American intelligence. But then they will have some tactical drones to refine their targeting. And the intent is to give them the capability to go after a lot of these al-Qaida camps in western and northern Iraq.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So how much of this is a military-only solution? And the analysts and the U.S. government when you are speaking to them, how much of it is a political solution on the prime minister working out a situation or a solution between the Sunnis and the Shias in Iraq?

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, that’s a good question.

I mean, a substantial portion of this problem is military. I mean, with the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, al-Qaida of Iraq or, as it is known, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant now, was able to reconstitute itself. It had been largely defeated through the surge.

And they moved into Syria, and then they established a base in Syria and in Iraq. And from Syria, they’re launching suicide — sending suicide bombers into Iraq, 30 to 40 a month, which are being directed at Shia and Sunni targets. So a substantial part of this problem is military.

If they had more military capability and if the Americans were directly involved, this threat would be much reduced. But there is a political dimension to it, which is that al-Qaida is taking advantage of detention the tensions between the Sunni population and Shia-dominated government and the reluctance of the Iraqi prime minister to share power with the Sunnis.

And that’s created grievances on the part of the Sunnis, which al-Qaida has been able to take advantage to a certain extent to recruit volunteers.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So this is the same faction of al-Qaida that is operating in Syria that both Bashar Assad, as well as the Free Syrian Army, are fighting there, and they’re also having operations against the U.S. in Iraq?

MICHAEL GORDON: Yes, what they seem to have done is they have carved out an area of Syria and Iraq which is their caliphate, so to speak, or their zone of control and influence.

And they have actually controlled territory now. It’s basically, basically the same — the same group. They don’t respect the borders or boundaries. And they go, you know, back and forth.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Michael Gordon of The New York Times, thanks so much.

MICHAEL GORDON: All right. Thank you.