The people of Ramadi don’t hunger for a sweet pastry when they hear the word “baklawa.” In this Iraqi city, just liberated from Islamic State rule, “baklawa” is what they call a minefield composed of one large, square-shaped charge attached to a number of smaller charges that explode in succession. Ramadi’s streets are paved with hundreds, if not thousands, of “baklawa” that render impossible the return of tens of thousands of displaced residents. The Iraqi army and the Shi’ite militias fighting alongside it haven’t yet cleared all these explosives, nor have they disarmed the booby-trapped buildings left behind by the Islamic State forces that captured the city in May 2015.
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Battles still rage in other cities in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province, of which Ramadi is the capital, and the progress of the Iraqi army is too slow to suggest that it will be in control of the entire area any time soon. Nevertheless, preparations are already under way to retake Mosul, in the north. A few weeks ago, Turkish forces deployed in adjacent Kurdish areas, and a few Iraqi battalions seized the city’s outskirts.
Around 4,000 American troops stationed in Syria and Iraq train and assist the local forces — which include Kurdish Peshmerga — while also carrying out special operations. These include the capture of the head of the Islamic State’s chemical weapons program, announced this week, and the assassination of top figures in the organization.
But these operations are not part of any overarching plan to liberate the Islamic State-controlled areas, and in fact the U.S. military itself is divided over which poses the greatest long-term danger, the Muslim extremist organization or Iran.
The outgoing head of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. Lloyd Austin, on Tuesday told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Islamic State is the greatest enemy, but at a confirmation hearing on Wednesday, Gen. Joseph Votel told the committee that Iran poses the greatest threat in the long term.
Austin told the committee the army needs to deploy additional forces in Iraq and Syria and to renew the program, which failed miserably last year, to train local forces. He spoke of “additional capability” without specifying troop numbers or their mission.
Votel told the committee that more resources would be needed to retake both Raqqa, Syria and Mosul from the Islamic State. The problem in both places is the lack of ground forces. The Americans hope to recruit the Syrian Kurds to retake Raqqa, but that’s a long shot in light of their exclusion from the negotiations on Syria’s future and the absence of American promises to support an independent Kurdish district.
Then there’s the U.S.-Russian competition in Syria. Kurdish forces say the United States is building an air base in the Kurdish province of Hasaka and planning a second one, obviating the dependence on Incirlik, in Turkey. Russia already has bases in Latakia, in addition to the Tartus naval base and the air base it controls near Homs, that had been used by Iranian forces. Syrian opposition figures believe the American bases are designed to foil the Russian plan to establish a federal state in Syria: The U.S. bases are planned for areas held by the Kurds and other U.S. partners. In Iraq, the U.S. special forces operate from the Kurdish autonomous region and no plans for bases have been reported.
The Islamic State continues its attacks in Syria and Iraq, and its “official” publications report daily military successes on many fronts. U.S. intelligence officials report that the organization is in retreat in Syria and Iraq and expanding operations in Libya. But these reports contradict Austin’s warnings about the organization’s plans to extend its control in Syria.
Interestingly, Austin devoted a considerable part of his testimony to another threat facing Iraq, the potential for the critically unstable Mosul Dam to fail and flood large parts of the country. The dam on the Tigris River was built in the early 1980s on unstable ground, where the earth underneath is constantly eroded by water. In 2006, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called it “the most dangerous dam in the world.”
Maintenance crews frequently poured cement under the foundation. This year Iraqi forces retook the dam from the Islamic State, which still controls the cement plant that had supplied the concrete, making it nearly impossible to continue the maintenance work.
Austin estimated that between 500,00 and 1.5 million Iraqis would probably die if the dam were to fail.
The noose placed around the dam’s neck is not the only asset held by the Islamic State. A report published this week by Britain’s Quilliam Foundation details how the organization trains the next generation of fighters.
The report, titled “The Children of Islamic State,” describes many cases where children are trained as spies and forced to inform on family and friends, taught to assemble and dismantle bombs and how to recruit members into the “children’s Islamic State.”
These children are trained to carry out beheadings and they participate in executions. The Islamic State published horrific images showing child militants behind a row of Syrian prisoners as they prepare to shoot them in the head. In one picture, a boy of about 14 held a knife to the throat of a prisoner.
According to the report, at least 50 British children fight alongside dozens of Syrian and Iraqi children who were abducted or recruited to the organization. The children are taught a religious curriculum that does not include drawing, social studies and philosophy. Girls, called “Pearls of the Caliphate,” are veiled, confined to the home and taught sewing, knitting and home economics. They are also taught to look after their soldier husbands, and marry between the ages of 9 and 16.
But the politicians are in no rush to save them or their starving counterparts in Syria.