Administration officials have said repeatedly that the United States will launch airstrikes if ISIS advances on Baghdad, but the Sunni militant group has carried out attacks in and around the capital for years.
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria estimates that it carried out 641 total operations in Baghdad in 2013, up from 371 operations in 2012 — ranging from car bombs to armed assault to assassinations, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank.
And ISIS shows no signs of stopping. At least five car bombs rocked Baghdad last week, largely in Shiite neighborhoods, leaving dozens of people dead.
The United States began moving some of its embassy staff from Baghdad in mid-June, but there are still more than 700 soldiers in Iraq — more than half of whom are dedicated to embassy security in the capital city.
Meanwhile, the United States launched a series of airstrikes in the past week against ISIS near Erbil in northern Iraq, as well as dropped humanitarian aid to the Yazidis, a stranded religious minority group. Al-Monitor‘s Laura Rozen asked State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf last week why strikes were being taken to protect U.S. personnel in Erbil when there have been ISIS bombings for years in Baghdad, including those “that are within hearing and feeling range of the U.S. Embassy.” Harf acknowledged that there have been bombings in Baghdad, “but obviously we look at the threat and we look at the picture.”
What an escalation of ISIS attacks in and around Baghdad would look like is unclear.
“The thing that we’re looking for in Baghdad now really has to be scaled in the fact that ISIS brought its [vehicle borne explosive device] wave campaign to Baghdad in a decidedly concentrated way in February 2013,” said Jessica Lewis, research director for the Institute for the Study of War. Lewis spent nearly three years with the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan providing intelligence support.
The widely accepted line of thinking is that ISIS would have a hard time taking Baghdad. Unlike the areas where the terrorist group has control, the capital is dominated by Shiites and Shiite militias, and it has a high number of Iraq’s security forces.
“There’s not a lot that they can use as a foothold,” said Steven Simon, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. But Simon, who served as the senior director for Middle Middle Eastern and North African affairs in the Obama White House during 2011 and 2012, added that “doesn’t mean that they can’t wreck and wreak havoc.”
And American airstrikes, while useful for hitting precise targets like ISIS artillery, are virtually useless against a suicide or car bomb — the militant group’s main mode of attack so far in the capital.
But even if the militant group doesn’t capture Baghdad, it could still threaten the capital — and by extension U.S. military personnel — through the Mosul dam. Located in northern Iraq, ISIS and Kurdish forces have been battling over Iraq’s largest dam, with the militant group reportedly taking control of the dam last week.
If ISIS decided to break the dam, it would “result in flooding along the Tigris River all the way to Baghdad,” according to a 2007 letter from David Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, at the time the U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
Despite the many questions on what ISIS will do next, one thing is very certain: It could make life for the residents of Baghdad much, much worse than it already has.
Lewis said, “My concern for Baghdad is largely framed out of an expectation that we have not seen [ISIS] maximally engaged yet.”
What We're Following See More »
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters on Monday that the government funding bill will be released on Tuesday. The bill is the last piece of legislation Congress needs to pass before leaving for the year and is expected to fund the government through the spring. The exact time date the bill would fund the government through is unclear, though it is expected to be in April or May.
As has been rumored for a week, Donald Trump will nominate Ben Carson, his former rival, to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In a statement, Trump said, "We have talked at length about my urban renewal agenda and our message of economic revival, very much including our inner cities. Ben shares my optimism about the future of our country and is part of ensuring that this is a Presidency representing all Americans. He is a tough competitor and never gives up."
The National Defense Authorization Act passed the House this morning by a 375-34 vote. The bill, which heads to the Senate next week for final consideration, would fund the military to the tune of $618.7 billion, "about $3.2 billion more than the president requested for fiscal 2017. ... The White House has issued a veto threat on both the House and Senate-passed versions of the bill, but has not yet said if it will sign the compromise bill released by the conference committee this week."
"Republicans have elected Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) the next chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee. Walden defeated Reps. John Shimkus (R-IL) and Joe Barton (R-TX), the former committee chairman, in the race for the gavel" to succeed Michgan's Fred Upton.
"Democratic and Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are working on legislation that would limit deportations" under President-elect Donald Trump. Leading the effort are Judiciary Committee members Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) is also expected to sign on.