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Sunnis spread chaos in absence of U.S. security in Iraq

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2014

In the most brazen assault by Sunni extremists in Iraq since the withdrawal of U.S. military forces more than two years ago, al Qaeda-style militants laid siege to the nation's second-largest city Tuesday, driving out Iraqi security forces and taking control of key government buildings.

The northern city of Mosul was attacked just one day after a similarly intense, albeit smaller, bout of extremist violence unfolded in southern Pakistan, where operatives of the Pakistani Taliban launched an attack that lasted hours on the main international airport in Karachi.

Analysts and U.S. officials cautioned against conflating the two developments, which occurred in different parts of the Muslim world and were not operationally connected.

However, the two attacks have dovetailed thematically, presenting a fresh challenge to the Obama administration's policy of reducing U.S. military involvement in the fight against Sunni extremists in both regions.

Some Republicans have long argued that the administration put politics above security realities by moving too quickly to pull all U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011, and framed Tuesday's assault on Mosul as a dark foreshadowing of what may lie ahead for Afghanistan.

President Obama recently announced that the number of U.S. troops will be cut to fewer than 6,000 over the coming 18 months in Afghanistan, which for years also has served as a base for U.S. drone strikes and special operations raids on Taliban and al Qaeda strongholds inside Pakistan's northwestern tribal region.

Sen. John McCain told reporters Tuesday that the seizure of large sections of a key city by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, designated by the State Department as a terrorist organization, points out the Obama administration's failure to leave enough forces on the ground to prevent Iraq from dissolving into chaos.

"I predict the same situation will evolve in Afghanistan with a complete withdrawal of American forces," the Arizona Republican said. "There is no doubt that we could have left troops behind as we have in Korea, in Germany, in Bosnia. We didn't and so it is now chaos and so you will see greater and greater attacks and dissolving chaos in Iraq."

There were no immediate estimates on how many people were killed in the Mosul assault, which was carried out by the same al Qaeda-inspired Sunni militants who have held control of the western Iraqi city of Fallujah since early this year. The group, commonly referred to in English as ISIS or ISIL, has risen in strength and numbers since taking on a growing role among rebel forces fighting a civil war in Syria, Iraq's neighbor.

'Holistic approach' in Iraq

The rampage in Mosul, with black banner-waving and machine gun-toting ISIL members storming into the city on the backs of pickup trucks, was seen by many as a defeat for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite.

Mr. al-Maliki has held on to power despite mounting accusations from the nation's Sunni leaders that his domestic policies border on being oppressive and ignore the plight of the Sunnis.

There is debate in foreign policy circles over the extent to which antipathy toward the al-Maliki government has prompted Iraqi Sunnis to tolerate the ISIL's dangerous rise in recent months.

The al-Maliki government also is widely perceived in Washington to be closely allied with Iran's Shiite government. The Obama administration appears to be straddling a line between supporting the al-Maliki government through the sale of U.S. military hardware while pressuring Baghdad to take a more inclusive posture toward Iraq's Sunnis.

The administration responded to the Mosul assault by stressing the need for a "holistic approach" to resolving the crisis presented by extremists in Iraq.

"The United States stands with the Iraqi people and the people of Ninewa and Anbar now confronting this urgent threat," State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said. "We will continue to work closely with Iraqi political and security leaders on a holistic approach to diminish ISIL's capacity and ability to operate within Iraq's borders."

She said U.S. "assistance enables Iraq to combat ISIL on the front lines, where hundreds of Iraqi security force personnel have been killed and injured in that fight this year."

A U.S. counterterrorism official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said ISIL "looks at Syria and Iraq as one interchangeable battlefield, and its ability to shift resources and personnel across the border has measurably strengthened its position in both theaters."

The official added, however, that the group "still has significant weaknesses," specifically in that it "has shown little ability to govern effectively, is generally unpopular, and has no sway outside the Sunni community in either Iraq or Syria."

But Iraqi military forces have been unable to route ISIL from Fallujah, and some analysts said the assault on Mosul — along with other ISIL attacks in recent months on the Iraqi cities of Ramadi and Samarra — exposed just how powerful the group has become.

"What they have really shown this June is the raw power of their movement, that they are able to move in multiple places in significant strength," said Michael Knights, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy focused on security in Iraq and the surrounding region.

Mr. Knights noted that the Mosul assault arrived roughly a month before the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and likely represents the opening of a deep offensive by ISIL.

"What we're seeing now is an offensive operation," he said. "What we saw in Fallujah and Ramadi was like a side incident. You think it's the main event, but it's not."

Others were even less restrained in their analyses.

"What we're seeing with Mosul is the beginning of the disintegration of Iraq as a single country," said Sam Patten, who until recently served as a consultant to a leading Sunni political party in Iraq and worked on promoting democracy in the nation through the International Republican Institute during the mid-2000s.

"About half the city has fallen, and we're talking about the second-largest city in the country," said Mr. Patten, who suggested that the situation has the ingredients to become even more explosive because Mosul sits on an ethnic fault line between Iraq's Sunni Arabs and Kurds — the latter of whom politically and culturally dominate a large territory to the north and east of the city."

Pakistani Taliban

The developments in Iraq come amid concern about the potential for gains by the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan after the much-anticipated pullout of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

Gunmen in Pakistan attacked a training facility for airport police near the Karachi airport Tuesday, forcing a temporary suspension of flights and triggering a brief shootout with security forces just days after an assault on the country's busiest airfield.

On Sunday night, 10 Taliban fighters stormed a VIP and cargo terminal at the Karachi airport. The attack killed 26 people and the Taliban gunmen.

Questions swirled about whether Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would abandon government-sponsored peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban in favor of a military offensive. The Pakistani air forces responded to the recent violence by launching airstrikes on militants in the nation's northwestern tribal region.

U.S. forces have never occupied Pakistan, but the Obama administration for years pursued a campaign of drone strikes against suspected al Qaeda leaders in the tribal region on the Pakistani side of the border with Afghanistan.

Reza Jan, an analyst focused on Pakistan at the American Enterprise Institute, said the administration appeared to halt U.S. drone strikes in the region six months ago, although it remains unclear whether the decline in such strikes could be directly related to the Pakistani Taliban's capability of launching attacks like the ones that struck Karachi this week.

"What is likely is that neither the Taliban in Pakistan, nor al Qaeda have been molested by drone strikes in the past six months, and we've seen that the Taliban in Pakistan shows remarkable resiliency to these drone attacks," Mr. Reza said. "They'll get hit, they might lose an important leader, but a few months later they've got somebody else in the role and their attack stream is unaffected."

In addition to Mr. McCain, other Republicans on Capitol Hill questioned whether the Obama administration is moving to hastily in pulling U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

"I want to make sure at the end of the day that we're not just rushing to fulfill a campaign promise" to withdraw U.S. troops, said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Illinois Republican and an Air Force major who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"In 20 years, history books will judge us very harshly, if that's the case," Mr. Kinzinger said during a hearing Tuesday focused on future U.S. spending in Afghanistan.

S.A. Miller and Philip Swartz contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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