Lt. Gen. Mick Bednarek is the top U.S. officer serving in Iraq. He stressed that the Islamic State is a global threat, not a local one. (Thomas Brown/Staff)
The violent advances of Islamic militants in Iraq is not an isolated problem but rather a “growing global challenge” that needs to be dealt with, the top American general in Iraq told Army Times.
“We must neutralize this enemy,” said Army Lt. Gen. Mick Bednarek, chief of the Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq in a Wednesday phone interview. “This is not just an Iraqi issue. This is not just a regional issue. This is a common enemy issue that we’ve got to address.”
Islamic State fighters have advanced across the northern and western parts of Iraq, seizing control of cities such as Mosul and Fallujah. Estimated to have about 10,000 fighters across Syria and Iraq, the militants have consolidated control over large swaths of territory during the past several weeks.
The group “is not just a violent extremist organization,” Bednarek said. “This is an army, and it takes an army to defeat an army.”
The Islamic State is well organized, equipped and funded, Bednarek said, and they caught the Iraqi forces off guard.
“This is a very, very difficult, dire and dangerous situation here in Iraq,” he said. “We’re very concerned about the deteriorating security situation as well as the growing humanitarian crisis. It’s not good, and it’s not improving fast enough.”
More U.S. involvement appears imminent. The Washington Post reported Thursday that President Obama could soon approve airdrops of humanitarian supplies, citing unnamed White House officials. There have been media reports of U.S. airstrikes but Defense Department officials have tried to squash those rumors.
There are about 750 U.S. troops in Iraq. About 400 troops provide security for the U.S. Embassy compound and facilities at the Baghdad International Airport, while more than 200 military advisers are working with Iraqi forces.
“We provided the assessments, and our senior leaders are reviewing those in pretty good detail,” he said. “From [there] they’ll make some appropriate recommendations to our senior leadership for the way forward as we look to continue current efforts or potentially expand or modify those efforts as we partner with the Iraqis.”
After days of intense fighting, militants from the Islamic State group on Thursday seized the Mosul dam, Iraq’s largest hydroelectric dam, giving them control of enormous power and water resources and leverage over the Tigris River that runs through the heart of Baghdad, the Associated Press reported.
The al-Qaida breakaway group posted a statement online Thursday, confirming it had taken control of the dam and vowing to continue “the march in all directions,” as it expands the Islamic state, or Caliphate, it has imposed over broad swathes of territory straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border. The group said it has seized a total of 17 Iraqi cities, towns and targets — including the dam and a military base — over the past five days. The statement could not be verified but it was posted on a site frequently used by the group, according to the AP.
Halgurd Hekmat, a spokesman for the Kurdish fighters, told the AP that clashes around the dam were ongoing and he didn’t know who currently had control over it.
“The Kurds are fighting valiantly, as they always have, but forces are spread very thin up there in the Mosul dam area,” Bednarek said Wednesday. “If the dam falls into [Islamic State] hands and the dam is destroyed, the flooding and humanitarian disaster that would cause, not only in Mosul city, but south all the way down the Tigris, would be a monumental catastrophe.”
Current hydrology estimates show it would take about four days for water from the Mosul dam to reach all the way down to Baghdad, flooding farms, homes and cities in its wake, he said.
The U.S. also is preparing, if called upon, to provide humanitarian assistance to thousands from Iraq’s minority Yazidi community who fled their homes after the Islamic State captured their towns in northern Ninewah province.
Faced with death threats, some 50,000 — half of them children, according to U.N. figures — ran into the nearby Sinjar mountains where they are out of reach of the militants, but are cut off from food and water, according to the AP.
The United Nations’ World Food Programme and the U.S. Agency for International Development, among other agencies, are trying to get much-needed food, water and supplies to the Yazidis who fled and are now stranded up on the Sinjar mountain range, Bednarek said.
“They’re surrounded because [Islamic State] has taken over the town of Sinjar,” he said. “To escape the killings, the violence, beheadings, extermination, they have gone up on the mountain top itself.”
The U.S. is “certainly looking to assist where we can from a humanitarian assistance perspective,” Bednarek said, adding that he’s been “asked to prepare contingencies in case that guidance comes to fruition.”
The western part of Iraq, including Anbar province, continue to be “very dynamic, dire and difficult,” Bednarek said.
The militants also have some of Iraq’s highways choked with checkpoints, blocking Iraqi Security Forces from resupplying, rearming, refitting and reinforcing its units in the field, Bednarek said.
The south remains relatively stable, Bednarek said, but fighting has intensified in the southern Baghdad belt, near Jurf Al Sakhar and Yusufiyah.
One positive development is that the crisis has brought together the Sunnis, Shias and Kurds to fight a common enemy, Bednarek said.
The Islamic State is not fighting for a stronger Iraq, Bednarek said, “They’re fighting to destroy Iraq.”
Regardless of what comes next, the U.S. is “committed to a long-term strategic partnership” with Iraq, Bednarek said.
The U.S. stood up a joint operations center in Baghdad and another in Erbil, and the U.S. also has a combined operations center with the Iraqis that is headquartered at the Ministry of Defense.
The incoming U.S. troops joined the 110 or so troops who were serving in Iraq as part of the Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq, led by Bednarek.
The office falls under the State Department, and it is designed to continue developing the relationship between the U.S. and Iraqi militaries through activities such as military-to-military exchanges and education and training program initiatives.
In the coming days and weeks, “everybody’s focused on the fight tonight,” Bednarek said.