At a Pentagon briefing on Thursday, reporters peppered a top defense spokesman with question after question about Iraq. “Will there be airstrikes?” “Will you speed up the delivery of Apache helicopters?” “Does the United States have legal authority to conduct military operations in Iraq?”
And with each question, Army Col. Steve Warren answered calmly that the United States has been providing support to Iraq since the last American troops packed up and went home at the end of 2011. The U.S. has given the Iraqis military training, weapons and equipment, including Hellfire missiles, sniper rifles, M-16s and M-4s and an untold amount of ammunition. A deal for U.S. Apache helicopters is underway, and the delivery of two F-16s will take months to complete. Both deals have been expedited since Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki came to Washington, D.C., in December, with hat in hand, asking for U.S. support.
But with reports that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, has seized U.S. military equipment as they rolled into Mosul this week, there’s a clear sense of caution on the part of Pentagon leaders to make sure these new assets don’t fall into the wrong hands. “We are completely aware of the gravity of the situation,” Warren said. “There’s no question that there was a structural breakdown [of Iraqi forces] in Mosul.”
ISIS has posted pictures of what it claims to be U.S. Blackhawk helicopters, but a DOD official said they were doctored photos and pointed out that the U.S. never sold or leased Blackhawks to the Iraqis. “There are no U.S. Blackhawks in Iraq,” the official said. As for pictures of ISIS members on U.S. Humvees, the official said “there is no indication that those are false.”
The Pentagon constantly monitors any foreign weapons sales. “Security is part of the process of transferring weapons systems,” Warren said. But the civil war in Syria is a clear example of how hard it has become to support different, often equally as dangerous, factions in irregular warfare, and even more difficult in the fast-moving situation in that area of the world, where now even al-Qaeda is distancing itself from ISIS.
In the halls of the Pentagon, many service members are disappointed that Iraq has spiraled out of control. But many agree with Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, who said in January that U.S. troops had completed their mission in Iraq.
“Obviously it’s disappointing to all of us to see the deterioration of the security inside of Iraq. I spent a lot of my life over there. From 2006, end of 2006 to September 2010, I was there as we continued to reduce the level of violence and the sectarian violence that was going on. I believe we left it in a place where it was capable to move forward,” he said, at the time.