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Exclusive: Baghdad Open to Letting U.S. Warplanes Fly From Iraqi Bases

Iraqi officials have given their American counterparts clear signals that Baghdad is willing to let U.S. fighter jets operate out of Iraqi air bases, a move that would allow planes to stay airborne longer and deliver more strikes. But the Obama administration, at least for now, doesn’t seem all that interested. The back-channel discussions over ...

Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Brian Stephens/Pentagon
Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Brian Stephens/Pentagon

Iraqi officials have given their American counterparts clear signals that Baghdad is willing to let U.S. fighter jets operate out of Iraqi air bases, a move that would allow planes to stay airborne longer and deliver more strikes. But the Obama administration, at least for now, doesn’t seem all that interested.

The back-channel discussions over the bases, which have not previously been reported, highlight the White House’s uncertainty about escalating its low-level air war against the Islamic State. President Barack Obama proudly pulled all U.S. troops out of Iraq in late 2011. He has repeatedly stressed that the military campaign there that began Aug. 8 will be limited in both scope and duration. With broad swaths of Syria and Iraq under Islamic State control, key U.S. allies are pressing the administration to step up the fight. Taking off from Iraqi bases would make it much easier to do so because it would put the American aircraft closer to their targets.

"Everything is harder when you’re doing it from the outside," a senior military official said.

At issue is a little-noticed aspect of this air campaign: None of the strikes against Islamic State targets inside Iraq have been carried out by U.S. aircraft based inside Iraq. Since the bombs began falling, U.S. aircraft have carried out more than 84 strikes. F-18s taking off from the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush, which is in the North Arabian Sea, conducted more than a third of those strikes. The remainder were carried out by U.S. aircraft assigned to bases inside Qatar and other nearby countries.

The latest airstrikes hit an array of Islamic State targets Wednesday near the Mosul Dam, the scene of fierce fighting between the militants and Iraqi and Kurdish troops. Defense officials said the strikes destroyed or damaged six Humvees, two armored trucks, and an array of other militant equipment and fighting positions. The administration’s public case for the military campaign initially focused on alleviating a humanitarian crisis and protecting U.S. personnel in the country. The new attacks seem to be directly targeting the Islamic State, raising questions about whether the mission is expanding beyond the administration’s stated goals and objectives. Pentagon officials on Wednesday insisted that the scope of the mission hadn’t changed.

It’s difficult to gauge how much the strikes are helping. According to the White House, the bombing near Mosul helped Iraqi and Kurdish forces retake the dam. The Pentagon, though, has conceded that the airstrikes have only minimally hindered the militants’ overall fighting strength and stressed that Iraqi forces aren’t up to the task of retaking large areas — including Mosul, the country’s second-largest city — under militant control.

"It would be a totally different story," said David Kilcullen, a counterinsurgency expert who spent several years as a top advisor to Gen. David Petraeus when he lead the U.S. war effort in Iraq. "Right now you’re stuck with a remote option that limits how long you’re in the air or how far you can fly. If you had bases [in Iraq] you could fly for more than 45 minutes at a time and maintain combat air patrols over different Iraqi cities."

A senior Iraqi official said that Baghdad is ready to give U.S. aircraft access to bases throughout the country, including several that had been key American hubs during the Iraq War. Baghdad, he said, is waiting for a formal request from Washington.

"We would have no issues with that whatsoever," the official said. "We would have no objections."

But the White House has not asked, said a person familiar with the matter. The White House declined to comment, referring questions to the Pentagon. A senior defense official said it is unlikely that the United States would base planes inside Iraq anytime soon. "I just don’t see it," the official said.

To be sure, setting up American air operations at an Iraqi base would be a difficult undertaking, and would require the Obama administration to make a much bigger commitment to the effort in Iraq. The massive Baghdad International Airport is likely too crowded to use. The sprawling Al Asad facility in western Iraq is seen as one of the likeliest homes for any U.S. aircraft. But the Pentagon would have to assign hundreds of maintenance personnel there, as well as security for the American pilots, support crews, and planes themselves. Even though such troops could technically operate inside the base and still not be considered "combat boots on the ground," it’s likely that such a move would only come if the administration was willing to sign off on an expanded U.S. mission with no clear end date, the military official said.

Still, Pentagon officials acknowledge that running air operations from outside Iraq makes conducting them that much harder. It takes longer — and more fuel — to get fighters or drones to their targets. From a tactical standpoint, that can sometimes contribute to less effective targeting. It can take a jet fighter more than an hour just to get from western Iraq to an area north of Baghdad, the military official said. If jets need to stay in the area over a potential target longer, they require refueling. That means another aircraft, a tanker, must be on call in the area. And that contributes to the complex nature of such operations.

"It becomes very challenging because without a tanker, you end up with time-on-station limitations," the senior military official said. "In other words, you’ve got to get up there, you’ve got to be used right away, or you’re going to ‘bingo’ out of there, you’re going to run out of gas."    

Gordon Lubold is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He is also the author of FP's Situation Report, an e-mailed newsletter that is blasted out to more than 70,000 national security and foreign affairs subscribers each morning that includes the top nat-sec news, breaking news, tidbits, nuggets and what he likes to call "candy." Before arriving at FP, he was a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, where he wrote on national security and foreign policy. Prior to his arrival at USIP, he was a defense reporter for Politico, where he launched the popular Morning Defense early morning blog and tip-sheet. Prior to that, he was the Pentagon and national security correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, and before that he was the Pentagon correspondent for the Army Times chain of newspapers. He has covered conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in South Asia, and has reported on military matters in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and Latin America as well as at American military bases across the country. He has spoken frequently on the sometimes-contentious relationship between the military and the media as a guest on numerous panels. He also appears on radio and television, including on CNN, public radio's Diane Rehm and To the Point, and C-SPAN's Washington Journal. He lives in Alexandria with his wife and two children. Twitter: @glubold