Members of Peace Brigades, a Shiite militia group loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, heading to Samarra, where Iraqi troops backed by Shiite fighters and are fighting extremists, stand with their weapons in an vehicle as they leave Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, Jan. 1, 2016. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)
Editor's note: This story was originally published Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2015.
The United States is willing to send more troops to Iraq — but do the Iraqis really want them?
Iraqi officials refuse to touch that question.
A spokesman for Iraq's embassy in Washington told Military Times that neither the ambassador nor his staff could provide "informed responses" to questions seeking clarity on Baghdad's willingness to host more U.S. troops. "I can try to request clarification from Baghdad," said Ali Al-Mawlawi, the spokesman, "but I can't guarantee that we'd get an on-the-record response."
Al-Mawlawi did not respond to subsequent inquires.
The embassy's uncertainty response highlights a fundamental shift in the U.S.-Iraqi relationship.
When itially following the Islamic State group began to sweep s advance across Iraq in 2014, the government in Baghdad very was publicly urged ing the U.S. to provide airstrikes and other military support, and President Barack Obama was reluctant.
Now, however, the situation is reversed, as the U.S. is pushing urging the Iraqis to invade Mosul, an ISIS stronghold, and repeatedly offering to increase step up military support — even if it means more American boots on the ground. But the Iraqis have balked.
Several factions within Baghdad's Shiite-led government are heavily influenced by neighboring Iran and oppose any expansion of the U.S. military mission there. That makes the question of more U.S. troops a political lightning rod for the Iraqis.
"The Iraqis want to keep it up in the air because they don't want to anger Tehran or D.C.," said Phillip Smyth, an adjunct fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"The pressure coming out of Tehran is very publicly: ‘Do not take their aid. Do not take their support,’" Smyth said. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi "is walking a very, very thin tightrope. They are so powerful right now, there is not much you can do," Smyth said."
Washington's overtures have become more American officials have grown very public in offering more military support. At a media event on Tuesday, for instance, Defense Secretary Ash Carter made it a point to note: "We have 3,700 boots on the ground in Iraq today, and we're looking to do more. We're looking for opportunities to do more."
A day prior, the top American military commander in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, told the Pentagon press corps that he, too, is talking to the Iraqis about potentially sending more troops. "Yes," MacFarland said, "there is a good potential that we will need additional capabilities, additional forces to provide those capabilities. And we're looking at the right mix … in consultation with the government of Iraq and our other partners," MacFarland told reporters Monday."
U.S. military officials in Baghdad are keenly aware of the Iraqis' fractured politics. "War is, you know, is an extension of politics and diplomacy. So we understand that there's going to be a political factor here," Army Col. Steve Warren, a U.S. Defense Department spokesman in Iraq, said Wednesday.
"That comes into our own calculations, even as we deliver advice. We have to be aware of the environment around us. And so we are," he said.
"We continue to work with the Iraqis to determine how we can best support their operations. But it's their operations that we're supporting. And so we're working with them within their constraints and limitations. And we're aware of those constraints and limitations," Warren said."
Warren noted pointed to several recent measures the U.S. and its coalition partners have taken, including the addition of small teams of U.S. special operations forces to target Islamic State leadership cells.
And Abadi recently requested more help for training Iraqi police forces, which can move in to secure the Sunni cities if the Iraqi army ousts the ISIS routs the Islamic State forces now in control. Italy has said its Carabinieri forces will deploy soon to provide that training.
In December, Carter said that the U.S. was willing to deploy American pilots with Apache combat helicopters to Iraq to provide better close-air support. Carter also said the U.S. could send more combat advisers to embed with Iraqi forces at brigade-level headquarters. So far, the Iraqis have declined.
MacFarland has called today's said the U.S. military mission in Iraq today is fundamentally different than those ones following the 2003 U.S. invasion in 2003. These days, the Americans need the Iraqis’ explicit support.
"We can't inflict help on somebody, you know? They have to ask for it, they have to want it," the general said Monday Tuesday.
The nightmare scenario for the U.S. military is an outbreak of open hostility between American forces and the Iranian-backed Shiite militias. MShiite militia attacks on U.S. forces were common following the 2003 U.S. invasion.
So far the Iranians have urged their Iraqi allies to stand down. But that may not last.
"The Iranians will eventually turn up the flame on the Americans if they feel like they are threatened," Smyth said.
"It's less a question of 'if' they attack but 'when.'
Update: On Thursday, after this report was published, a spokesman for the Iraqi embassy in Washington provided the following statement:
"The Iraqi government has an ongoing dialogue with the U.S. officials on the extent of our military cooperation. The prime minister and the minister of defense both regularly meet with U.S. officials and commanders to review our joint efforts and explore additional measures that could enhance Iraq's ability to defeat Daesh. The number of U.S. service members in Iraq has increased to more than 4,000 since the initial arrival of 1,500 in November 2014. The prospect of increasing the number of U.S. personnel that are engaged in the train-and-equip program in Iraq is determined by needs on the ground."
Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.
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