The Cable

U.S. Worried ISIS Playing a New Game in Baghdad

Problems multiply for the embattled Iraqi government

BAGHDAD, IRAQ - MAY 11: People gather at the explosion site after a car bomb attack staged at Uraiba marketplace in Sadr District of Baghdad, Iraq on May 11, 2016. Several casualties reported. (Photo by Amir Saadi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - MAY 11: People gather at the explosion site after a car bomb attack staged at Uraiba marketplace in Sadr District of Baghdad, Iraq on May 11, 2016. Several casualties reported. (Photo by Amir Saadi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

American commanders are growing concerned that a recent spate of deadly bombings in Baghdad will cause the Iraqi government to lose focus on an upcoming assault on Mosul, the Islamic State held city which government troops have been encircling for weeks.

In response to the attacks — which have killed over 100 civilians and deeply unnerved the capital city — Iraqi officials were considering pulling some troops back to Baghdad for added security. But U.S. advisors cautioned against it, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Baghdad told reporters Wednesday.

“We said ‘Hey, we think you should keep the forces out in the field.’ And that’s what they ended up doing,” said U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren.

In a tactic reminiscent of the bloodiest days of the American occupation in the mid-2000s, the Islamic State has used car and suicide bombers to hit Shiite neighborhoods Baghdad. The strikes mark a shift in how the Islamic State is conducting its war in Iraq, moving from gaining and holding ground in the Sunni north and west to direct assaults on the predominately Shiite capital.

On his way to Iraq and other points in the Middle East, Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, told reporters traveling with him Wednesday he believes the attacks are a product of battlefield losses elsewhere in Iraq, and ISIS is “looking for ways to start to regain their momentum or regain the initiative.” He added, “They believe it will cause the Iraqi government to divert forces, divert effort, divert intellectual horsepower” to Baghdad.

But as much as half of the Iraqi security forces are already in positions in and around the capital.

The U.S.-led coalition has trained about 31,000 Iraqi security forces to date with another 3,800 currently in the pipeline. Over 1,000 Kurdish peshmerga fighters have completed training over the past month, and another 1,100 are currently in training. Many of those are expected to fight in Mosul, Warren said.

Iraqi government and Kurdish forces have been amassing around Mosul in recent weeks in preparation for the eventual assault, which many believe won’t happen until next year. American advisors and commandos are also deployed near the city, with a company of U.S. Marines launching artillery strikes to support Iraqi offensives in the area. Since March, a Marine and a Navy SEAL have been killed in fighting around Mosul.

Tensions in the capital have been high in recent weeks as Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has tried — and failed — to replace his cabinet in a bid to curb rampant corruption that has stained the image of the government. The graft and the economic crisis brought on by the fall in oil prices have brought thousands of Shiite protesters to the streets. Late last month, supporters of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stormed the Green Zone, the hub of government activity in Baghdad, only pulling out on Sadr’s orders.

Just after the protest, Sadr left the country for Tehran, in a move that was seen by many as Iran ordering him back before the situation spiraled out of control. In a statement on Tuesday, Sadr called the recent spate of bombings “the clearest evidence that your government has become incapable of protecting you and providing you with security.”

His own militia, Saraya al-Salam, or the “Peace Brigade,” has been out in force in Baghdad in recent days, patrolling Shiite neighborhoods in trucks mounted with heavy machine guns, and setting up checkpoints to inspect cars and pedestrians for bombs. But on Wednesday, his fighters pulled back from some neighborhoods after he “ordered that no arm be displayed in public, avoid friction with the security forces and avoid being dragged into violence,” one aide told Reuters.

Photo Credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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