U.S. expands secret facility in Iraq

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IRBIL, Iraq — A supposedly secret but locally well-known CIA station on the outskirts of Irbil’s airport is undergoing rapid expansion as the United States considers whether to engage in a war against Islamist militants who have seized control of half of Iraq in the past month.

Western contractors hired to expand the facility and a local intelligence official confirmed the construction project, which is visible from the main highway linking Irbil to Mosul, the city whose fall June 9 triggered the Islamic State’s sweep through northern and central Iraq. Residents around the airport say they can hear daily what they suspect are U.S. drones taking off and landing at the facility.

Expansion of the facility comes as it seems all but certain that the autonomous Kurdish regional government and the central government in Baghdad, never easy partners, are headed for an irrevocable split — complicating any U.S. military hopes of coordinating the two entities’ efforts against the Islamic State.

The autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government angered Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki when early in the crisis it sent its pershmerga militia to seize the long-contested city of Kirkuk after Iraqi troops abandoned it. Relations have deteriorated since. On Wednesday, Mr. Maliki accused Kurdish President Massoud Barzani of sheltering Islamic State members. The next day, Mr. Barzani demanded that Mr. Maliki resign.

Overnight, Kurdish troops seized oil fields operated by Iraq’s Northern Oil Co., whose exports had been controlled by the central government, “These two are among the main wells producing oil in Iraq,” said Assam Jihad, the Oil Ministry spokesman. “They are the spine of Iraq’s oil wealth and produce 400,000 barrels a day.”

Oil industry publications said they had produced a little less than half that in recent months, but nonetheless represent a significant share of Iraq’s oil production. In 2012, Iraq produced on average of 3 million barrels of oil per day, according to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. “Half of this production goes to the local market, and the other half goes for export,” said Mr. Jihad, criticizing the Kurds’ seizure of the field as a “constitutional breach” and “violation of Iraq’s sovereignty.”

In Baghdad, Mr. Maliki, a Shiite, replaced the foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, with Hussain Shahristani, a Shiite from Mr. Maliki’s bloc. Mr. Maliki was responding to a decision by Mr. Zebari and other Kurdish Cabinet members to boycott Cabinet meetings in protest of Mr. Maliki’s searing criticism of the Kurds this week.

Iraq has a caretaker government because of delays, first in finalizing the election then because lawmakers have been unable to agree on candidates to fill the top positions. Although it is not stated in the constitution, the speakership typically goes to a Sunni, the presidency to a Kurd and the prime minister slot to a Shiite. Each group has a number of factions that first must agree on a candidate, and then ensure that the candidate has at least the tacit approval of the majority of the members of other groups.

Parliament is scheduled to try again Sunday to name a speaker, which would be the first step toward forming a government. Under intense pressure to do so, the lawmakers appeared likely to hold a meeting. But since each group is waiting for the other two to present candidates, it was not clear that there was enough trust to go forward.

The developments all come as the United States, which has said it won’t come to Iraq’s assistance unless Mr. Maliki takes steps to make his government more inclusive, is expected to announce early next week its assessment of the military situation in the country. Pentagon officials said the assessment might be made public as soon as Monday.

But U.S. officials have known for some time that it was likely that they would need to coordinate any steps taken in Baghdad and in Irbil, where the peshmerga has worked closely over the years with the CIA, U.S. special forces and the Joint Special Operations Command, the military’s most secretive task force, which has become a bulwark of counterterrorism operations. Peshmerga forces already are manning checkpoints and bunkers to protect the facility, which sits just a few hundred yards from the highway.

“Within a week of the fall of Mosul we were being told to double or even triple our capacities,” said one Western logistics contractor, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because he had signed nondisclosure agreements with the U.S. government on the matter. “They needed everything from warehouse space to refrigeration capacity, because they operate under a different logistics command than the normal military or embassy structures,” the contractor said. “The expansion was aggressive and immediate.”

Other contractors who deal extensively with moving heavy equipment through Irbil’s airport, which has supported a rapidly expanding oil and gas drilling industry, said they were aware of the expansion. One British oil executive said he’d detected a “low-key but steady stream of men, equipment and supplies for an obvious expansion of the facility.” The local Kurdish intelligence official described what was taking place as a “long-term relationship with the Americans.”

In a statement July 3, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that Irbil would host such a center, in addition to one being set up in Baghdad, and suggested that it had already begun operating. “We have personnel on the ground in Irbil, where our second joint operations center has achieved initial operating capability,” he said then.

“It’s no secret that the American special forces and CIA have a close relationship with the peshmerga,” said the Kurdish official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because he was discussing covert military operations. He added that the facility had operated even “after the Americans were forced out of Iraq by Maliki,” a reference to the 2011 U.S. troop withdrawal after the Obama administration and the Iraqi government couldn’t agree on a framework for U.S. forces remaining in the country.

The official refused to directly identify the location of the facility but when he was shown the blurred-out location on an online satellite-mapping service he joked, “The peshmerga do not have the influence to make Google blur an area on these maps. I will leave the rest to your conclusions.”

During a recent visit to the site, extensive construction of new roads off the main highway could be seen, as well as what appeared to be construction of a fortified gate complex to protect access, which previously had been controlled by a simple dirt road and checkpoint flanked by two bunkers guarded by men in peshmerga uniforms. Armored sport utility vehicles driven by military-appearing Westerners in civilian clothes were seen entering and exiting the facility in convoy fashion.

A special operations officer, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because he’s legally bound not to publicly discuss his career without specific Defense Department permission, said working with the Kurds would overcome a number of difficult issues that would be present as U.S. advisers worked with the Iraqi army.

“It’s a natural fit that as these guys look around at the collapsed Iraqi army and how all of its remaining competent units are either infiltrated by or directly led by Iranian Revolutionary Guard commanders that there would be a high degree of discomfort directly operating with them,” he said. “But the Kurds are trustworthy, reliable and already know how to fight alongside your units. It’s a natural fit to run an operation from Irbil with the pesh, while the other advisers in Baghdad try to stem the bleeding of the Iraqi army and protect that huge U.S. embassy complex.”

He also noted there are advantages to working with Kurdish forces if the United States decides to launch airstrikes against Islamic State positions. “Airstrikes are close to useless without good intelligence and targeting, and that’s going to be hard to come by on the Baghdad side of things,” he said. “To me, it’s a no-brainer. The only real way you can do that is with the Kurds.”

United States - North America - United States military - United States government - Middle East - Chuck Hagel - U.S. Department of Defense - Iraq - Nouri al-Maliki - Iraq government - Baghdad - U.S. Army - Iraqi armed forces - Massoud Barzani - American Green - U.S. Army Special Forces

The New York Times contributed.


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