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Northern Iraq Burdened With Military, Humanitarian Crises


We are looking this morning at some of the next steps for the United States in Iraq.


The situation is changing quickly, so let's begin with the facts on the ground. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is in our studios. Tom, good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, just a reminder here - ISIS, this extremist group that captured much of Northern Iraq, has been threatening Kurds who have an area up there - also had surrounded a small religious minority on a mountain prompting fears of genocide. That was the fear. What's happening now?

BOWMAN: Well, Steve, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says it looks like there's no need for a rescue effort of that religious minority, the Yazidis. A team of American Green Berets and U.S. aid workers dropped in by helicopter. They found that most of the Yazidis had already fled off the mountain. Thousands went into Syria or absorbed by towns and villages or brought back to the city of Irbil. So it looks like there's no need for anything right now. They'll still drop humanitarian aid and do airstrikes if necessary, but this massive relief effort we thought was necessary is no longer necessary.

INSKEEP: So one more situation or one situation anyway where U.S. intervention on a broader scale is not going to be called for, at least at this moment.

BOWMAN: Absolutely.

GREENE: Tom, that situation on the mountains seems to be resolving itself, but the broader situation has not. And there's some people who think that the U.S. as a lot more to do. And stay with us, Tom. I want to bring in another voice here. He's retired U.S. Army General Michael Barbero. He served three tours in Iraq, and he's been advising businesses now who wish to invest in Iraqi Kurdistan. He just got back from Irbil, the Kurdish capital.

MICHAEL BARBERO: There's about 2 million total refugees in Kurdistan.

GREENE: Two million, that's a much bigger number that I think we've been hearing and these are - many of these, they're religious we've been hearing about.

BARBERO: Yeah, Christian, Yazidi - plus the people from Mosul a couple of weeks ago. And I talked to the chief of staff to President Barzani and others, and they use the terms, tired, desperate, urgent need. They talk about treatment of the Yazidis as genocide, and basically on the humanitarian front, they need everything - camps, health care. It far exceeds their capacity. They said the two aircrafts with humanitarian aid from the French have arrived, but they need the full international community to engage and help them with this humanitarian crisis.

GREENE: So what can the United States military do exactly to help in this crisis?

BARBERO: Well, the humanitarian crisis - we can start - help them get organized on the ground in Irbil - out of harm's way. And obviously we can start airlifting in massive amounts of aid and help them plan the distribution and also help facilitate these national organizations' engagement there to set up these camps. But on the military side, David, there's a military crisis, as we all know about and in terms Kurds use - they're fighting a well-equipped state. They also said they have a thousand-kilometer border with the terrorist state.

GREENE: General, let me just stop you if I can. Explain exactly what we're talking about here.

BARBERO: Well, ISIS has its roots in Syria, and through its operations in Iraq and Mosul in June, when they moved in and occupied Northern Iraq, there is now a thousand-kilometer border that Kurdistan and this occupied state - where they're confronting ISIS. And they're fighting ISIS not just in Irbil and Sinjar, which gains most of the attention, but also in the East - Jalula. The Peshmerga there was pushed out of Jalula the other day in northern Diyala province.

GREENE: The Peshmerga, these are the Kurdish security forces.

BARBERO: Kurdish fighters - and they've been fighting there for weeks. And I talked to the leader of that Peshmerga, and he said they have received zero U.S. aid - no arms, no ammunition. So they need our greater assistance, and they need heavier weapons. They're outmatched and overmatched and outgunned.

GREENE: What exactly do you think the U.S. military goal should be here when we're talking about the second crisis as you say - battling this enemy ISIS?

BARBERO: Well, I mean, let's just review the statements from the administration - preventing an ISIS state in Iraq is in our national interest. An ISIS state in Iraq is a threat not only to the U.S. homeland, but to the region. And the way to defeat it is through these local forces. So given all that, we should be doing everything we can to equip, advise and arm and train these Kurdish forces and the Iraqi security forces in the South. Otherwise, it's just temporary measure you know, half-steps to prevent the slaughter of the Yazidis and to relieve a little pressure off Irbil. We'll be doing that forever. We need to have a strategy to engage ISIS, and I'm not talking about U.S. boots on the ground - not talking about U.S. combat forces.


BARBERO: The Kurds are willing to fight. We just need to enable them and help them to take the fight to ISIS

GREENE: But what will that involve? Wouldn't we need a lot of trainers and training forces on the ground if not combat forces?

BARBERO: Well, we've got the airpower. We take a strategy - a strategy to strike the ISIS bases, their infrastructure and their forces - their command control nodes - I'm sure we understand where they are - and to really degrade the ISIS capability. They are not 10 feet tall. They are very capable. However they're not 10 feet tall, so concerted airstrikes along the depth of the ISIS forces would be effective.

GREENE: This sounds like a big, big new commitment on the part of the United States.

BARBERO: Well, it's - David, it's either pay me now or pay me later. And it's not about 2003 you know, should we have invaded? It's not about 2007, should we have surged - did the surge work or not? Yeah, it is a little bit about 2011, how we departed, but it's about 2014 and a terrorist state that is determined to march on Baghdad, march on Irbil in the Kurdish region and march on Jordan. So if it truly is a threat to the U.S. and the region, then we should develop a real strategy to deal with this existential threat.

GREENE: What role does Syria play here, and would the United States need to at least consider airstrikes in Syria to carry out the strategy you're talking about?

BARBERO: Well, it starts - it all starts and emanates from Syria. So if we're serious about defeating this ISIS threat, then you have to target the length and breadth of the network. And that takes you back to their - some of their bases and roots in Syria.

GREENE: Which seems to create this incredible scenario where the United States and the Assad regime in Syria would essentially be fighting a common enemy here.

BARBERO: You're right, but if we are going to do anything against this threat, we're going to have to think about how do we defeat ISIS, how do we degrade their capabilities to help protect our friends - our strongest friends and allies in the region, the Kurds, and all their oil and gas reserves and facilities in Kurdistan also would fall into ISIS hands - and then they'd be on the border with Turkey. So there are no easy answers to this, there are no simple ways out of it, there are only tough decisions but the longer we wait, the stronger ISIS gets. Time accrues to their benefit.

GREENE: We've been speaking to the General Michael Barbero. He's now retired. He served three tours in Iraq, and he's now doing business in Iraqi Kurdistan. General, thank you so much for your time.

BARBERO: David, thanks for your time. I appreciate it.

GREENE: And NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is in the studio with us. He was listening in. And Tom, the general there, one of the things he suggested is that the U.S. military might do some significant training and equipping of Kurdish forces to help them deliver a blow to ISIS. Is that something the U.S. military is pondering?

BOWMAN: Well, at this point, the Kurds are getting some light weapons and ammunition from the U.S. There's talk of providing heavier weapons to the Kurdish Peshmerga forces - artillery and mortars and vehicles. But still, that's just talk. And I'm told as far as a training mission, that could happen in Iraq once the new Iraqi government is formed. And that could take weeks, as we've seen.

GREENE: We've been reporting on the political situation in Baghdad. It's not clear there'll be a new government at any time soon. What about just the larger message from this general? He has a lot of experience in Iraq. He seems to be suggesting - he said you can't take half-steps. To really deliver a blow to ISIS they might have to consider airstrikes in Syria, a long-term commitment, a lot of equipment, a lot of training. I mean, is the president, you know, thinking about that kind of long-term commitment here?

BOWMAN: Well, at this point, there's no talk of a wider effort. Now, remember the current mission was limited. It was a humanitarian mission and then preventing Islamic State militants from going into Erbil, where there's an American consulate and American military personnel. And a Pentagon official said early this week, listen, these airstrikes being done by the U.S. will help in the North, but not in the western part of Iraq - Ramadi, Fallujah - or Syria. In all those areas, the Islamic State is quite strong. So there's no talk right now of any sort of wider effort.

GREENE: All right, that's NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman talking to us about the quickly changing situation in Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.