The Cable

Obama Administration Trashes Baghdad for Ignoring Warnings About ISIS

Senior officials at the State Department and Pentagon offered detailed and withering criticisms of the Iraqi government on Wednesday for failing to stop the march of the radical militant group the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, which has captured large swaths of north and central Iraq.

Iraqi leaders repeatedly failed to heed U.S. warnings about ISIS's threat to the country in early June even as hundreds of ISIS gun trucks carrying fighters and heavy weapons raced over the Iraq-Syria border en route to Mosul, said officials. By that time, ISIS had already captured the towns of Fallujah and Ramadi, but efforts to reinforce other key cities could have halted ISIS's advance, officials suggested.

The assessment came in testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee by a senior Pentagon official, Elissa Slotkin, and the State Department's point man on Iraq, Brett McGurk, who just returned from a seven-week trip to the country. McGurk's trip was designed, in part, to press the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to mount a serious outreach effort to the country's embittered Sunni and Kurdish minorities or step aside so that a new unity government could take over and lead the fight against ISIS.

Both officials expressed deep frustration at the refusal of Iraq's military and police units to stand up and defend their own country.

"Anyone who was watching or has been part of our efforts in Iraq was disappointed by what we saw in Mosul," Slotkin said, noting that nearly five brigades dissolved amid the fighting in Iraq's second-largest city. "Rather than a lack of capability ... they lacked the will or direction to fight."

The pointed blame-shifting follows weeks of criticism in Congress that the Obama administration failed to do more to stop ISIS from taking over so much of Iraq.

Last month, ISIS declared the creation of an Islamic caliphate in the large swath of territories it gained in Iraq and Syria. On Wednesday, the terrorist group claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing at a police checkpoint in Baghdad that killed at least 13 civilians and injured 58. Officials in Washington are growing increasingly skeptical that the territory in Iraq lost to ISIS can be easily taken back. Neither lawmakers nor officials addressed whether Washington had provided intelligence to Baghdad prior to the ISIS takeover of Fallujah and Ramadi.

McGurk, who arrived in Iraq on June 7, three days before ISIS militants took over Mosul, described an Iraqi leadership aloof about the urgent threat facing the country. Even as American officials relayed what McGurk insisted was timely information about the hundreds of ISIS fighters flocking from the Iraq-Syria border town of Rabia to the outskirts of Mosul on June 8, Baghdad did little.

"The Iraqi Army agreed to provide assistance to Mosul, but Iraqi commanders did not seem to appreciate the urgency of the situation, and stated that reinforcements might not arrive for a week," said McGurk.

In the days prior to the June 10 takeover of Mosul, the State Department sent an "immediate and urgent" message to the Iraqi acting minister of defense and Maliki's chief of staff about ISIS's advances, and the need to reinforce Mosul with nearby Kurdish peshmerga forces. The warning was downplayed, said McGurk. One day before ISIS (also known as ISIL) ransacked Mosul, "the government of Iraq expressed confidence that Mosul was not under a serious threat," said McGurk. "Throughout the day, however, Mosul's western-most neighborhoods began to fall to ISIL. Its fighters began attacking checkpoints and killing resisters, seeking to establish psychological dominance over Iraqi security units in the city," he added.

One day later, ISIS detonated a suicide truck bomb at a strategic checkpoint east of the city, allowing a free flow of ISIS forces to seize the entire city.

Baghdad officials, for their part, have repeatedly stressed that Iraq needs U.S. air support to combat the terrorist threat posed by ISIS. While some have suggested that Maliki, who has pursued sectarian policies, should step down in exchange for U.S. airstrikes, spokesmen for the prime minister have rejected this solution.

While acknowledging the systemic problems facing Iraq, members of Congress questioned whether the administration could have done more to help the Iraqis earlier on. In particular, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) asked why the United States didn't move sooner to destroy ISIS camps in Iraq through drone strikes.

"The Iraqi government had been urgently requesting drone strikes against ISIS camps since August 2013," said Royce. "These repeated requests, unfortunately, were turned down."

McGurk shot back, saying Baghdad hadn't formally requested drone strikes until May of 2014. What is clear is that the Iraqi government began publicly expressing an openness to U.S. drone strikes throughout the summer and fall of 2013, citing the plague of al Qaeda-affiliated insurgents in the country. 

McGurk underscored the danger ISIS posed to Iraq and other countries in the region, noting that extortion and smuggling rackets have allowed the terrorist group to generate nearly $12 million a month in revenues. "The situation in Iraq remains extremely serious," said McGurk.

He noted stepped-up efforts to improve intelligence and surveillance coordination with Iraq through the construction of two Joint Operations Centers (JOCs) in Baghdad and Erbil. "These JOCs help ensure a constant 24/7 flow of real-time intelligence information from across Iraq," he said. "We are now able to coordinate closely with Iraqi security forces, the Ministry of Defense, and the Baghdad Operations Center."

McGurk and Slotkin cautioned that there's no military solution to Iraq's problems and that a political solution aimed at repairing trust between the Shiite-led government in Baghdad and Iraq's Sunni and Kurdish minorities was the only tenable path forward. Still, the officials failed to provide confidence to lawmakers that Iraq's leaders were capable of achieving this or that the United States could even play a critical role. "Iraqis must do the heavy lifting," said Slotkin.

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U.S. Presses Israel to Wind Down Gaza Offensive

The United States ratcheted up pressure on Israel to wind down its military offensive in Gaza, arguing that the more than 630 Palestinians who have been killed there -- most of whom were civilians -- underscored the need to secure an immediate cease-fire.

While the United States blamed Hamas for being the greatest obstacle to a cease-fire, American officials signaled that they aren't prepared to give Israel a free hand to continue its military campaign against the Islamist group. Israel has used airstrikes and ground forces to pound Hamas in an effort to destroy its missile caches and seal off the tunnels it has dug that reach from Gaza into Israel. The militant group, undeterred, has killed at least 27 Israeli soldiers while continuing to fire volleys of rockets toward major Israeli cities.

Speaking before the U.N. Security Council, Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said a "cease-fire as soon as possible is essential." Power's remarks came as Israel's military offensive against Hamas in Gaza reached the 15-day mark with no sign of winding down, fueling a growing wave of criticism that Israel has killed too many civilians in its battle against the militants.

"As grave as the situation is now -- and it is indeed grave -- it can get worse. If the fighting persists, it will," Power said at a public meeting of the Security Council. "That is why the United States will not rest until a cease-fire is achieved and the underlying issues fueling the conflict are addressed."

Power spoke as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and other regional leaders gathered in the Middle East to try to resuscitate an Egyptian-led effort to negotiate a cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas.

Hamas had previously rejected Egypt's appeal for a cease-fire on the grounds that the group had not been consulted about the proposal and that the proposal failed to address key demands, like the lifting of the blockade on Gaza and the release of Palestinian prisoners envisioned to be freed as part of this year's aborted Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Speaking to the Security Council via a video link from Ramallah, Ban reinforced Power's call for a cease-fire, saying the "horror and upheaval is beyond imagination." Ban said that any cease-fire deal would have to "support durable political, security, institutional, and socioeconomic progress that stabilizes Gaza" and ensure that both Israelis and Palestinians "feel a sense of security."

"I have carried a three-part message at every turn of my visit. First, stop the fighting. Second, start the dialogue. Third, tackle the root causes," Ban said. "Suffice it to say that it is my hope and belief that these talks will lead to results and an end to the fighting in the very near future."

In New York, Israel's deputy permanent representative, David Roet, said that Israel had gone to war with Hamas reluctantly. Palestinian militants, he said, have fired a grand total of 12,000 rockets at civilian targets in Israel over the past decade.

Hamas, he added, has entered a new front in its conflict with Israel, building a network of underground tunnels that exposes Israel to fresh attacks. "Since entering Gaza, the Israel Defense Forces have uncovered 23 tunnels with over 66 entry points, many of which are under homes and schools," he said.

"Trust me when I tell you -- Gaza is the very last place that we want our soldiers to be. This is not a war we chose. It was our last resort," he said. "Three times -- three different times -- Israel agreed to accept a cease-fire, and every single time, Hamas refused and launched even more rockets."

Jordan, Israel's closest Arab ally, circulated a draft text of a resolution condemning Israel's conduct and calling for an immediate cease-fire. Diplomats, however, said it was unlikely that the United States would support the resolution, particularly at a time when its top diplomat is in the region seeking to negotiate an end to the fighting. Arab diplomats, meanwhile, criticized the 15-nation council for failing to adopt a formal resolution.

"What is the point of the Security Council if it does not go into action now?" asked Saudi Arabia's U.N. ambassador, Abdallah al-Mouallimi.

But the efforts of international mediators seeking to negotiate a cease-fire agreement have been confounded by one nagging question: How can you craft a deal ending the fighting that won't reward, and strengthen, Hamas for precipitating the conflict through a rain of rockets on Israeli targets?

"This crisis erupted because Hamas was in a corner: It was weak politically, weak economically, and strong militarily," said Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It lost its foothold in Syria, and it's being squeezed by Israel and Egypt."

If Hamas succeeds in securing concessions from Israel and the international community for accepting a cease-fire, its standing among Palestinians could benefit, he said. "It's entirely possible, if not likely, that if there is a deal, Hamas will be able to point to some kind of political gains."

As Ban and other diplomats pursued a cease-fire, Canada's foreign minister, John Baird, called on the United Nations to launch an immediate investigation into reports that Hamas has stored stockpiles of weapons in U.N.-administered schools.

"I was appalled to hear reports, one as recent as today, of stockpiles of rockets in a school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Gaza," he said. "Even more alarming were reports that in the first case, officials with the United Nations returned these weapons to Hamas, a listed terrorist organization, once Israeli officials discovered their location."

"If proven true, this would fly in the face of all that the United Nations should stand for," he added.

The U.N. relief agency (UNRWA) announced last week that during a routine inspection it had discovered about 20 rockets hidden in a U.N. -administered school in Gaza, and condemned it. Chris Gunness, a spokesman for UNRWA, told the Daily Beast that the U.N. turned over the rockets to the local police, who, he said, report to the Palestinian government in Ramallah, and not to Hamas.

Ban said Tuesday that it was "unacceptable" that armed groups had used U.N. premises to store weapons. But he praised UNRWA's role in the crisis, saying the agency is "providing crucial relief and shelter to civilians in imminent danger."

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