Iraq has begun bombing Islamic State fighters with the help of a new intelligence center operated by Russia, Iran and Syria, a cooperation that is raising concerns in Washington about the threat to U.S. interests in the region.
The center has been operational for about a week and already has provided intelligence for airstrikes on a gathering of middle-level Islamic State figures, Hakim al-Zamili, the head of the Iraqi parliament’s defense and security committee, told Reuters on Tuesday.
The White House reacted with obvious concern to the development, just two weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin gave the green light for a bombing campaign that has largely targeted anti-government militants in neighboring Syria, including Islamic State fighters and U.S.-backed rebel groups battling Syrian President Bashar Assad, a longtime ally of Moscow.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the U.S.-led coalition that was launched in Iraq more than one year ago “has worked effectively with the Iraqis to make progress against ISIL inside of Iraq.”
ISIL and ISIS are other names for the Islamic State group.
“We believe those coordinated efforts through our counter-ISIL coalition will be more effective than the unilateral efforts of nations like Russia and Syria,” Mr. Earnest said.
But Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican and a frequent critic of President Obama’s Middle East policy, said developments in Syria proved that U.S. policy was “floundering” and a tougher response was needed.
“We cannot shy away from confronting Russia in Syria, as Putin expects the administration will do. His intervention has raised the costs and risks of greater U.S. involvement in Syria, but it has not negated the steps we need to take. Indeed, it has made them more imperative,” Mr. McCain wrote in an op-ed for CNN.com.
The U.S. criticism has had little effect on the tempo of Russia’s Syria campaign, which has allowed the embattled Assad government to launch a fresh ground offensive. The Russian Defense Ministry said Tuesday that its planes carried out 88 sorties targeting 86 sites in Raqqa, Hama, Idlib, Latakia and Aleppo provinces — a marked increase from the number reported in previous days.
The new security apparatus based in Baghdad, where the Obama administration hurriedly sent military advisers last year to counter the threat from the Islamic State, suggests the U.S. is losing clout in the strategic oil-producing Middle East region. Iraqi officials, frustrated with the pace and depth of the U.S. military campaign against Islamic State fighters, have said they will lean heavily on Washington’s former Cold War rival Russia in the battle against the Salafist Sunni Muslim jihadis.
Two Russian one-star generals are stationed at the intelligence center in Baghdad, according to an Iraqi official who asked not to be identified. Mr. al-Zamili, a leading Shiite Muslim politician, said each of the four member countries has six members in the intelligence sharing and security cooperation cell, which holds meetings in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, which once housed the headquarters of the U.S. occupation.
“We find it extremely useful,” the Iraqi official said. “The idea is to formalize the relationship with Iran, Russia and Syria. We wanted a full-blown military alliance.”
Iran, a longtime Middle East adversary of the U.S., already boasts deep influence in Iraq, a fellow Shiite-majority state. Iranian military advisers help direct Baghdad’s campaign against the Islamic State, which aims to expand its self-proclaimed caliphate in the Middle East.
The Baghdad government and allied Iranian-backed Shiite militias that are leading the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq, say the Obama administration lacks the decisiveness and the readiness to supply weapons needed to eliminate jihadi militants in the region. U.S.-led airstrikes on Islamic State militants, who now control a third of Iraq, have failed to turn the tide of the conflict, which has sapped the OPEC oil producer’s finances and fueled sectarian bloodletting.
A Pentagon spokesman, Army Col. Steve Warren, said he couldn’t verify the report of military cooperation among Iraq, Iran and Russia, but insisted that the U.S.-led coalition is having success against the Islamic State.
“I think what’s most important is that the Iraqis are fighting ISIL, right?” Col. Warren said. “It’s the Iraqis who are fighting ISIL. We are helping the Iraqis to fight ISIL. We have been here for a year. We have trained almost 15,000 Iraqi security forces. We have taken back 30 percent of the territory that ISIL once had. We have killed thousands of enemy fighters, hundreds of enemy leaders, thousands of pieces of equipment. I think anyone would have to agree with the fact that this coalition is here, and is providing some very solid support to the Iraqi forces who are fighting ISIL.”
Islamic State leaders bombed
Iraqi warplanes bombed a convoy this week that was thought to be carrying Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, based on information from the center staffed by Russians, Mr. al-Zamili said. Security officials later said al-Baghdadi was not in the convoy.
“We can get a lot of use from Russian intelligence, even if they don’t do airstrikes,” Mr. al-Zamili said.
Sami al-Askari, a former member of the Iraqi parliament who served as a senior adviser to Nouri al-Maliki when he was prime minister, said Iraq was aware of the sensitivities of the arrangement.
“The Iraqi government wants to do this in a way that doesn’t look like they’re pushing the Americans away,” he said.
Col. Warren, based in Baghdad, said the U.S.-led coalition has killed 70 leaders of the Islamic State’s terrorist army, creating paranoia among fighters who are “afraid to move around the battlefield” in Syria and Iraq. He told Pentagon reporters that “now is the time for a final push” by Iraqis into Ramadi, the western Iraqi city captured by the Islamic State last summer as more numerous government troops ran.
In the ensuing months, the U.S. has trained and equipped Iraqi forces to retake the town, Col Warren said. They are now stationed in the Ramadi outskirts, roughly equivalent to being in Arlington, Virginia, with the objective of taking Washington.
“This is going to be a tough fight,” he said of a town held by about 1,000 terrorists.
The spokesman delivered an indictment of the 2-week-old Russian bombing campaign over Syria. In one area, he said, it has helped the Islamic State take territory from moderate Syrian rebels. In another case, the United Nations was forced to end humanitarian work.
“I find these airstrikes to be reckless and indiscriminate,” Col. Warren said.
He asserted that over 7,000 coalition airstrikes are hurting the Islamic State. “We’re drying up their bench,” he said. “It has degraded their ability to conduct operations.”
National security analysts have said the Islamic State has developed layered operations to quickly replace top leaders who are killed with people who are just as skilled.
Col. Warren said the coalition is targeting high-value individuals and killing them at the rate of one every other day.
“Not all is well in the so-called caliphate,” he said.
Since Ramadi, he said, the terrorists have not gained “a millimeter” of territory.
Meanwhile, Russia showed Tuesday that it is feeling the sting from U.S. criticism of its airstrike campaign in Syria. It reminded Washington of its support for the U.S. in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Moscow vehemently denied Western claims that Russia is trying to keep the Assad regime standing. The Kremlin has called those claims a form of Western propaganda and maintains that its only goal in Syria is to fight terrorism.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova evoked the Kremlin’s reaction to the 9/11 attacks in comments rejecting the U.S. stance on Russia’s Syria campaign.
“I want to remind you after the September 11th attacks, we shared the U.S. pain as if it were our own, understanding what terrorism is,” Ms. Zakharova told a news conference. “We supported the United States in everything, [including] in the U.N. Security Council. We helped them fight terrorism. We didn’t ask, ‘Are they good or bad terrorists?’”
Mr. Putin’s move already has shown signs of increased danger to Russians from counterattacks from Islamist groups in the Middle East and back home in Russia.
The Associated Press reported that the Russian Embassy in Damascus was shelled Tuesday as pro-government demonstrators gathered outside, while Syria’s largest insurgent coalition announced an offensive to counter Moscow’s aerial bombing.
Al Qaeda’s branch in Syria released an audio message purportedly from its leader urging Muslims in the former Soviet Union to attack Russian civilians if Russia targets civilians in Syria.
Ms. Zakharova recounted Russia’s own history of Islamist attacks, saying fighting such militants was a matter of national security for Moscow. Mr. Putin was the first world leader to call President George W. Bush after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001 with offers to help, and Russian-speaking fighters from Chechnya and other parts of Russia have flocked to the Islamic State black flag in Syria and Iraq.
“We have been through this, we know what it is like and we don’t want to see international terrorism in our country again. This is too painful for us. And we expect understanding on this one,” she said.
• Kellan Howell and Dave Boyer contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.