The Cable

Iraq Asks U.S. for Airstrikes Against al Qaeda Splinter Group

The Iraqi government has formally asked the United States to deploy airstrikes against a militant group that is occupying a growing section of northern and central Iraq and moving closer to Baghdad. The request comes as militants belonging to the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) seized Iraq's biggest oil refinery on Wednesday. But it also comes as Barack Obama's administration raised doubts about the value of kinetic strikes in a conflict plagued by deep sectarian divisions throughout the country.

"We have a request from the Iraqi government for air power," said Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a Senate panel on Wednesday, June 18. But "it's not as easy as looking at an iPhone video of a convoy and then striking it.… These forces are very intermingled."

Dempsey's skepticism about airstrikes corresponds with what senior administration officials told the New York Times and Wall Street Journal on Tuesday: That the United States lacks the information needed to hit ISIS targets in a way that would swing the momentum on the battlefield. Fears remain that U.S. military strikes could result in civilian casualties in Sunni-populated areas, a prospect that would further exacerbate the sectarian tensions with Iraq's Shiite-led government.

"I happen to believe, and I think the president has said it, that a political solution is the only viable solution," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said at Wednesday's hearing before an appropriations subcommittee.

At the moment, Iraq's government forces are struggling to thwart ISIS advances in Diyala and Salahaddin provinces, following the takeover of Mosul, the country's second-largest city, last week.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki urged Iraqis of all religious and ethnic sects to join forces in defeating the Sunni-led terrorist group.

"We all belong to one country and one religion," said the Shiite strongman. "Don't listen to those talking about Sunnis and Shiites.… From Samara, we will start the battle to vanquish terrorism."

But Maliki's rhetoric of inclusion is seen as just that in Washington, where frustration over his chauvinistic sectarian leadership is at an all-time high.

"One of the reasons I believe that Iraq is in this situation is that the current government never fulfilled the commitments it made to bring together a unity, power-sharing government with the Sunnis, the Shiites, and the Kurds," said Hagel. "And I think that's probably generally accepted."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, agreed. "I think that most of us that have followed this are really convinced that the Maliki government, candidly, has got to go if you want any reconciliation," she said. "If you want a Shiite-Sunni war, that's where we're going, in my view, right now."

Publicly, the administration has ruled out the possibility of American combat troops on the ground. However, officials are reportedly considering sending U.S. special operations forces to Iraq to offer Baghdad intelligence and battlefield advice.

Photo via Getty Images

National Security

The U.S. Makes Case for Libya Abduction at the U.N.

Barack Obama's administration has mounted a strenuous defense at the United Nations of its decision to capture Ahmed Abu Khattala, the chief suspect in the deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya. It notified the U.N. Security Council that America acted in self-defense to prevent similar attacks, according to an unpublished copy of the U.S. letter to the world body.

The appeal to the Security Council came as the Libyan government accused Washington of violating Libyan law by abducting Abu Khattala within its borders and urged the United States to return Abu Khattala to stand trial in Libya.

The Libyan government "considers this as a violation of legal sovereignty and certainly they are asking for some explanation from the U.S. government," Libya's U.N. envoy, Ibrahim Dabbashi, told Foreign Policy. "I think the guy is also wanted for crimes in Libya." The Libyan government, he added, believes that Libya should try him rather than the United States.

Dabbashi said he has "no idea" whether the United States officially sought Libyan approval for the operation. But he has no intention of formally protesting the American action. "There is no reason to raise it," he said. "I think it should be raised in Washington, D.C."

Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said that the United States did tell Libyan authorities about the operation to capture Abu Khattala but wouldn't clarify whether it notified the government beforehand or afterward. "On the consultations with Libya, we've long made it clear that we were going to hold accountable the perpetrators of -- of Benghazi," he told reporters Wednesday. "This should come as no surprise to anyone, least of all the Libyan government. And I can tell you that they were -- they were notified about ... this capture operation."

It is unusual for the United States to report its counterterrorism operations to the United Nations.

The United States has long maintained that in self-defense it can legally pursue international terrorists anywhere in the world if it has evidence the terrorists are seeking to strike American targets. The Obama administration believes it requires no international approval to do so.

The United States provided no such explanation to the U.N. Security Council after Delta Force commandos in October captured Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai (also known as Abu Anas al-Libi), a Libyan militant whom U.S. authorities linked to al Qaeda's 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa that killed more than 200 people.

The United States has also never formally notified the 15-nation council of any of its targeted killings of terrorist suspects by drone, and it didn't make formal notification of its raid of Osama bin Laden's compound.

In a letter to Russia's Vitaly Churkin, this month's Security Council president, Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said that the United States determined that Abu Khattala was a "key figure" in the September 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic outpost, which resulted in the deaths of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

"On behalf of my government, I wish to report that the United States of America has taken action in Libya to capture Ahmed Abu Khattala, a senior leader of the Libyan militant group Ansar al-Sharia - Benghazi in Libya," she wrote. "Abu Khattala will be presented to a United States Federal Court for criminal prosecution.

"Following a painstaking investigation, the U.S. government ascertained that Ahmed Abu Khattala was a key figure in those armed attacks," the letter continued. "The investigation also determined that he continued to plan further armed attacks against U.S. persons."

The U.S. rationale echoed the Bush administration's controversial doctrine of "preemptive war," which holds that the United States may act militarily in self-defense to respond to an imminent threat. Power provided no details of Abu Khattala's role in planning future attacks against U.S. citizens, but insisted that they were serious enough to merit American action.

"The measures we have taken to capture Abu Khatallah in Libya were therefore necessary to prevent such armed attacks, and were taken in accordance with the United States' inherent right of self-defense," she wrote. "We are reporting these measures to the Security Council in accordance with Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations."

Article 51 states that U.N. members possess an "inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a member of the United Nations."

David Bosco, a scholar at American University and an FP columnist who authored a book on the Security Council, said it is "unusual" for the United States to submit such a letter.

The United States, he said, is likely seeking to "solidify" its legal case. He suggested that the United States may not have had a clear green light from the Libyan government. "If the United States could claim that the Libyan government had endorsed or given its authorization to this operation, they would have been on solid legal ground internationally because of the right of sovereign governments to request assistance, including military assistance, from another government," he said. "This letter makes me think that the Libyan government is not on board with this operation and was certainly not publicly willing to condone it."

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that criminal defendants may be prosecuted in U.S. courts regardless of where or how they were captured and brought to the United States. In 1992, the court found that a Mexican doctor accused of assisting in the torture and murder of a Drug Enforcement Administration agent and his pilot in Mexico could stand trial in the United States even though the doctor was kidnapped from his home and flown in a private plane to Texas, where federal authorities arrested him.

"The fact of [the defendant's] forcible abduction does not prohibit his trial in a United States court for violations of this country's criminal laws," the Supreme Court ruled.

Foreign Policy's Senior Writer Shane Harris contributed to this story from Washington.

Photo by Mahmud Turkia/ AFP/Getty Images