CIA Ramps Up Role in Iraq

by ADAM ENTOUS, JULIAN E. BARNES and SIOBHAN GORMAN,  |  published on March 15, 2013


The Central Intelligence Agency is ramping up support to elite Iraqi antiterrorism units to better fight al Qaeda affiliates, amid alarm in Washington about spillover from the civil war in neighboring Syria, according to U.S. officials.

The stepped-up mission expands a covert U.S. presence on the edges of the two-year-old Syrian conflict, at a time of American concerns about the growing power of extremists in the Syrian rebellion.

Al Qaeda in Iraq, the terrorist network’s affiliate in the country, has close ties to Syria-based Jabhat al Nusra, also known as the Nusra Front, an opposition militant group that has attacked government installations and controls territory in northern Syria. The State Department placed al Nusra on its list of foreign terror organizations in December, calling the group an alias for al Qaeda in Iraq.

In a series of secret decisions from 2011 to late 2012, the White House directed the CIA to provide support to Iraq’s Counterterrorism Service, or CTS, a force that reports directly to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, officials said.

The CIA has since ramped up its work with the CTS—taking control of a mission long run by the U.S. military, according to administration and defense officials. For years, U.S. special-operations forces worked with CTS against al Qaeda in Iraq. But the military’s role has dwindled since U.S. troops pulled out of the country at the end of 2011.

The switch to CIA authority will complement other U.S. efforts to counter al Nusra, a former U.S. official said. In Turkey, the CIA has officers working with select rebel groups, U.S. officials said. In Jordan, U.S. special-operations troops are training Jordanian forces in how to deal with Syria’s chemical weapons should Damascus lose control of them or use them.

This shift to the CIA in Iraq also is in line with the Obama administration’s goal of limiting the U.S. role in the Syrian conflict. The administration is providing nonlethal assistance to the opposition, but refuses to send weapons, in part to avoid aiding extremist elements among rebel forces.

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