It seems like only yesterday that Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, was celebrating as the last American soldiers left Iraq. Now, with an al Qaeda offshoot threatening to take Baghdad, Maliki’s government is quietly asking at least some troops—specifically airmen and drone pilots—to return.
While Iraq’s government is not requesting a surge in U.S. ground forces like the one President Bush ordered in 2007, Maliki’s government has been asking for the U.S. to conduct targeted air strikes and the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance work to find those targets.
And there are plenty of new targets. On Tuesday, the al Qaeda offshoot known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) overran Iraqi military positions in Mosul, the country’s second-largest city. On Wednesday, reports from Iraq said the terrorist group was pushing toward Iraq’s capital, Baghdad.
If President Obama agrees to launch drone strikes in Iraq, it would not be unprecedented for the region. The United States is playing a similar role in Iraq’s neighbor, Yemen, with intense counterterrorism training and drone strikes. But Obama also has boasted that he ended the U.S. war in Iraq and thus far has been hesitant to reenter the conflict.
“What we really need right now are drone strikes and air strikes,” said a senior Iraqi official Wednesday. But the official stressed that so far the Obama administration has been reluctant.
A senior U.S. military official told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that the request for U.S. air strikes inside Iraq has been discussed in recent months. “There are no plans right now to participate in anything like this,” the official said. In earlier conversations, the official said the U.S. side “did not give them a hard no—it was ‘Thanks for your interest and we will talk about it more.’”
“We are asking for almost everything short of boots on the ground.”
Foreign Policy’s Gordon Lubold first reported last month that Iraq sought armed drones from the United States in quiet talks about more military assistance and that those drones likely would have to be operated by U.S. forces. A spokeswoman for the National Security Council, Bernadette Meehan, told Lubold that the White House had not received a “formal request to operate armed drones over Iraq…Nor is there debate in the administration about diverting armed drones over Iraq or planning to do so.”
When asked for comment Wednesday, Meehan said: “We are not going to get into details of our diplomatic discussions, but the government of Iraq has made clear that they welcome our support in their effort to confront [ISIS]. We have expedited shipments of military equipment since the beginning of the year, ramped up training of Iraqi security forces, and worked intensively to help Iraq implement a holistic approach to counter this terrorist threat. Our assistance has been comprehensive, is continuing, and will increase.”
But two senior Iraqi officials told The Daily Beast that Iraq indeed has asked for the United States to conduct air strikes inside the country since November, when Maliki visited Washington.
In an interview Wednesday, Iraqi Ambassador Lukman Faily declined to discuss any specifics of the Iraqi military requests to the United States. But he did say, “We are asking for almost everything short of boots on the ground.” Faily described the requests as falling into the category of “counterterrorism cooperation.”
“The United States has capabilities in the region. They have the ability to help us,” he said. “We have made requests. They are aware of this. There is an urgency now. We hope they understand the sense of the urgency we are dealing with now.”