‘Iraq is now like a drowning man’

Amid fresh ISIL gains, officials in Anbar province have urged the Iraqi government to request foreign ground troops.

The Iraqi government says it plans on making further reforms to the country’s beleaguered military [Reuters]

Baghdad – Despite the inability of Iraqi forces to stop the advance of fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) west of the capital Baghdad, the Iraqi government has reconfirmed it will not ask for foreign ground troops.

Instead, it will rely on making further reforms to the country’s beleaguered military, officials said – which could presage the fall of more towns and cities to ISIL.

On the weekend, the local government in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province sent a written request to the Iraqi parliament, asking it to request US ground troops in an effort to save other towns and cities near Baghdad. ISIL fighters last week overran the town of Hiit in Anbar, and have since besieged dozens of villages around the nearby town of Haditha, which remains under the control of Iraqi forces and anti-ISIL Sunni tribesmen.

Anbar’s police chief, Lieutenant General Ahmad Sadak al-Dulaimi, was killed alongside four bodyguards when their convoy was hit by roadside bombs on Sunday, military officials said. He had been fighting ISIL members who were trying to gain control in northern Ramadi.

“There is no solution but to get the US military to intervene on the ground,” a senior security adviser to the federal government told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity. “Iraq is now like a drowning man who has no choice but to ask for help.”

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Although there are 53,000 Iraqi soldiers in Anbar, along with several strategic military bases, “they could not stop the militants’ advance… What we really need are US elite troops,” the adviser added.

Since August, a US-led military coalition has been bombing ISIL fighters who hold swaths of territory in northern and western Iraq, but military and local officials in Anbar told Al Jazeera that progress has been stymied by a recent influx of new ISIL fighters.

Any foreign ground troops on Iraqi soil will be treated as enemy troops.

by - Haider al-Abbadi, Iraqi Prime Minister

Located just outside Baghdad, Anbar is a key strategic province and ISIL would gain a big advantage over Iraqi forces by overtaking the area. ISIL currently controls more than 70 percent of Anbar, with the rest under the control of Iraqi security forces and anti-ISIL Sunni tribes, Sabah Karhout, the head of Anbar’s Provincial Council, told Al Jazeera.

“The air strikes are not working, as [ISIL’s] numbers are more than you can imagine,” Karhout said, noting intelligence information shows that ISIL has tens of thousands of fighters operating in Anbar. 

Karhout and other local officials in Anbar blame the shortage of security personnel, weapons and money, warning the province may fall into the hands of ISIL within days.

“The air strikes are not enough to redeem Anbar from Daesh’s [ISIL] grip and without the intervention of the coalition forces, Anbar will fully be under the control of the militants within 10 days,” Falih al-Essawi, deputy of the Anbar Provincial Council, told Al Jazeera. “The [Iraqi] government should consider our request [for international ground forces] because Daesh threatens not only Anbar, but Baghdad will be under threat in the coming days.”

The US has used Apache attack helicopters to provide close air support to Iraqi forces. General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US chiefs of staff, said the decision to use Apaches was taken to halt fighters who might otherwise have been able to attack Baghdad’s airport on the city’s western outskirts.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi has repeated many times that there will be no need for foreign ground troops, noting in a recent television interview with the al-Hurra channel: “Any foreign ground troops on Iraqi soil will be treated as enemy troops.”

In the same interview, Abbadi said Iraq does not need international ground troops because it has more than one million security personnel, plus a half-million volunteer anti-ISIL fighters. What Iraqi security forces need, he said, is more reforms, training, and coordination.

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On Tuesday, Iraq will participate in a US-led military coalition meeting in Washington, during which participants will discuss how best to support Iraq in its fight against ISIL. Babiker Zebari, the chief of the Iraqi army staff, will be present.

“We do not need troops. What we need is weapons and to reorganise our troops,” said a senior Iraqi defence ministry official. “We already started to restructure the dissolved military divisions and rehabilitate the deserters who returned to the service by sending them to short basic courses and redeploying them.”

Thousands of deserters have returned to the service after the government issued an amnesty last August, the official said.

Abbadi’s military team believes that while local reforms would take months, this is the only available option, as more significant foreign intervention would cause internal divisions. Shia fighters have on many occasions, threatened to withdraw from the front lines if the Iraqi government brings in foreign ground troops. Washington has also ruled out the option.

“We’ll do our part from the air and in many other respects in terms of building up the capacity of the Iraqis and the Syrian opposition, the moderates. But we are not going to be in a ground war again in Iraq,” National Security Adviser Susan Rice told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday.

Abbadi and his team, meanwhile, have said the battle with ISIL could last for months, if not years, but they maintain Baghdad is secured – even as more than 100 people were killed amid multiple explosions in the capital in the last two days.

“The belt of Baghdad is secured, but the problem is the sleeper cells which are able to carry out daily explosions,” a military official in Abbadi’s office told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity. “We have so many sleeper cells [inside Baghdad]. These cells are able to hide among the civilians and this makes hunting them very difficult.”

Source: Al Jazeera