Shiite tribal fighters raise their weapons and chant slogans against the ISIS in Baghdad's Shula neighborhood, on June 16, 2014.
Shiite tribal fighters raise their weapons and chant slogans against the ISIS in Baghdad's Shula neighborhood, on June 16, 2014. // Karim Kadim/AP

Iraqi Forces Can Hold Baghdad, Pentagon Says

Fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are bearing down on Baghdad, reportedly as close as 30 miles away, but Pentagon officials believe Iraqi security forces will hold the nation’s capital.

“We’re seeing indications that Iraqi security forces in and around Baghdad are stiffening … that’s encouraging,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said Tuesday. The Iraqi troops are being helped by Shiite militias, but Kirby couldn’t say how many. “It certainly appears that they have the will to defend the capital.”

The vote of confidence from the United States military comes as President Barack Obama said he was disappointed that Iraqi security forces abandoned the fight in Mosul, a major city in the north that fell quickly to ISIS fighters last week. “The fact they are not willing to stand and fight and defend their posts against admittedly hardened terrorists … [indicates a] problem in terms of morale, of commitment, ultimately that’s rooted in the political problems that have plagued the country for a long time.”

About 160 American troops are on the ground in Baghdad, providing security for the U.S. Embassy and other facilities. Another 100 troops are “staged outside Iraq,’ ready to respond if needed. One of the things those troops are trained to do is airport management and security, Kirby said, adding that ISIS fighters are “not very far from Baghdad.” There were reports of an explosion Tuesday in Sadr City, a Shiite suburb of Baghdad, that killed 10 people.

While the U.S. military is providing options for Obama, he still hasn’t made a decision on whether to order military strikes in Iraq as the situation grows more dire by the day. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have fled, many to the northern area of Kurdistan.

“Where we are right now in the process is that the national security team continues to meet and discuss and review options available,” Kirby said, including non-military approaches.

“The president hasn’t made a final decision right now — we have to preserve that space for him to do that,” he said.

When asked if Obama was taking too long to act, Kirby said, “This isn’t about breathing space, it’s about making measured, deliberate decisions that make the most sense. And it’s a complicated issue. Believe me, everybody has noticed the speed with which [ISIS] has moved within Iraq.”

The Pentagon has moved four warships north into the Persian Gulf specifically to be available for strikes in Iraq, including the aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush, a guided-missile destroyer, cruiser and amphibious landing ship. There are also thousands of U.S. troops stationed in Kuwait, but whether they are standing by to intervene in Iraq, Kirby only say that the Defense Department “routinely deploys a rotational brigade in and out of Kuwait … That rotational presence continues. They’re available for a range of contingencies across the [Central Command] region. They’re there.” But Kirby restated Obama’s position that no ground troops are heading into Iraq to take on ISIS.

In Brazil for the World Cup, Vice President Joe Biden, the administration’s point man on Iraq relations, said the administration is “consulting closely” with the Iraqi government.

“I’ve been on the phone with their leaders as well over the past week — we’re consulting closely with a full range of Iraq’s leaders on an inclusive political path forward, even as we provide assistance to Iraq’s security forces,” he said.  

“Urgent assistance is clearly required but we also need to help Iraq build the capacity to confront threats over the long term,” he said. “And that’s going to require setting aside sectarianism, dealing with legitimate grievances, building up an inclusive security force and ensuring that all communities live together and have their voices heard. 

“The bottom line here is that Iraqis have to put together and pull together in order to defeat this enemy, and then move toward building a better future for Iraqi — all Iraqi people. And we will help them in that effort.”