Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said his country wants the U.S. to provide more airstrikes, weapons and intelligence in their joint battle against the Islamic State. But he stressed his opposition to ground troops from the U.S. or other outside nations, fearing Iraq could be turned into a major regional war.
In a wide-ranging interview Monday with NPR's Kelly McEvers, the Iraqi leader also called on the U.S. and its coalition partners to focus their air power on Iraq's western border with Syria, saying Islamic State fighters have been able to enter his country far too easily.
Abadi said he welcomed the help from the U.S. and other coalition partners but was specific in describing what he did and didn't want from the Americans in the fight against the Islamic State, which he referred to by its Arabic acronym, Daesh.
"I have to admit, this support and this air cover is still limited," the prime minister said in a telephone conversation from Baghdad. "We can destroy Daesh. I think we have many forces on the ground who are fighting Daesh. We can advance on Daesh. But we need proper intelligence and proper air cover and support."
Many U.S. critics say the Iraqi military has performed poorly in its battle with the Islamic State and needs additional help, from either Western or Arab ground troops to defeat the extremists.
But Abadi was adamant this was not the case.
"We don't want boots on the ground. Full stop," he said. "We don't want combat troops on the ground to carry [out] military missions on the ground. We don't need that."
Calls To Step Up The Campaign
The U.S. has been bombing the Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria since the summer of 2014, carrying out some 9,000 airstrikes. There are some 3,500 U.S. forces in Iraq who are conducting the air war as well as training and advising the Iraqi military. But President Obama has consistently opposed any ground combat role for the U.S. forces.
Obama has faced critics who say he should step up military action against the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, because the current campaign has progressed much more slowly than many anticipated.
In an interview broadcast on Morning Edition on Monday, Obama defended his policy in Iraq and Syria, referring specifically to attacks by Republican presidential candidates.
"Well, when you listen to them, though, and you ask, 'Well, what exactly are you talking about?' 'Well, we are going to bomb more,' " Obama told NPR's Steve Inskeep. "Well, who is it you are going to bomb? Where is it that you are going to bomb? When you talk about something like carpet-bombing, what do you mean?"
"If the suggestion is that we kill tens or hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrians and Iraqis, that is not who we are," the president added. "That would be a strategy that would have enormous backlash against the United States. It would be terrible for our national security."
A Porous Border
In the U.S., the conversation about the Iraqi war often centers on the cities the Islamic State still holds, including Ramadi, west of Baghdad, and Mosul, the largest city in the north.
But Abadi emphasized the long desert border between Iraq and Syria, saying it remained far too porous.
"Daesh is controlling both sides of the border, on the Syrian side, on the Iraqi side. And there are many foreign terrorists who are crossing from Turkey to Syria to Iraq. And there is a lot of smuggling of oil and other things to finance the terror machine of Daesh. And this ought to be stopped."
U.S. air support was crucial to a recent operation in northern Iraq, in and around Sinjar, that helped drive out Islamic State forces and ended the group's control of the main highway connecting northwest Iraq and northeast Syria.
But Abadi said much more needs to be done in the vast border region.
The Iraqi leader was also asked about the U.S. presidential campaign, and he urged American politicians to consider the weight their words may carry in Iraq.
"I understand this political democracy in the U.S. ... but I always tell them, please know that whatever you say has an impact here on Iraq," Abadi said. "We are fighting a very, very hard war against this terrorist organization."
"When we hear you have an army of 100,000, armies from all over the region to go in [Iraq], that will cause all sorts of alarm here," he added. "What sort of army and who's controlling the army? What do they do there? Are they going to occupy Iraq and Syria?"
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The prime minister of Iraq wants more help fighting ISIS, just not the kind the U.S. has been offering lately. The Pentagon had suggested sending attack helicopters to help with the battle for Ramadi. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told our co-host Kelly McEvers today that the focus should be elsewhere, but he does not want U.S. combat troops on the ground.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Their conversation came after a deadly weekend for Iraqi troops. Nine soldiers and an officer were killed Friday by U.S. airstrikes. Both countries call it a mistake. Kelly asked the prime minister what happened.
HAIDER AL-ABADI: It is a sad thing for us. Clearly, it's a friendly fire. There was combat, very close-proximity combat. Forces were advancing, but there was an enemy - huge enemy fire, then the coalition were - they were brought in and they started attacking, and it was very successful. Two hittings were successful, but the third one, when the enemy was hit, they advanced towards our forces and our forces advanced towards them. And then a third hit or bomb came down which have killed many enemies and killed some of our forces. So that was very unfortunate and is sad for us, but the good thing about it is we won that battle.
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: I know that people in Iraq are understandably upset about this. Does this make it harder for you and your government to accept United States help in battling ISIS?
AL-ABADI: You know, in any mistake there will be bad feeling about it, especially on the part of the families. I think it happens everywhere. I know I have received an apology from the U.S. Defense Secretary and this may make things easier, but still I think we have - here in Iraq, there is polarization of opinions. But I think our fight with Daesh is essential for us, and the cover or the support which we are receiving from our coalition partners in terms of providing air cover to our forces is essential, and this will continue.
MCEVERS: And when you say Daesh, of course, you mean ISIS.
MCEVERS: The United States has offered more help in the fight against ISIS - specifically, Apache helicopters and advisers on the ground. They say it could finally end the battle to retake the city of Ramadi. And yet, you have declined this offer for now. Why?
AL-ABADI: Well, it's not that, to be honest with you. I mean, Ramadi is almost there. We have control in about 70 percent of Ramadi, so we're advancing very well. But what we need this support - we didn't turn it down as such, but what we need this support for is we have a problem with the borders with Syria. You know that Daesh is controlling both sides of the border, on Syrian side, on the Iraqi side. There are many foreign terrorists who are crossing from Turkey to Syria to Iraq. And there's a lot of smuggling of oil and other things to finance the terror machine of Daesh, and this ought to be stopped.
MCEVERS: What is your sense of why you haven't gotten that help at the borders so far?
AL-ABADI: Well, we had been told this is massive thing; it's very long, that border. There's a desert, they have to watch everything there. They need many manpowers and many resources. They don't have that resources. But I think that that support must be quite wide, and you need a lot of intelligence there because Daesh, again, is learning from what we are doing. Daesh is moving in very small convoys. Sometimes you - it's very hard to differentiate them from civilians, so you need much more intelligence, much more air reconnaissance, much more missions to combat Daesh. This means much, much more resources than we have at the moment, to be honest with you. Sometimes I get frustrated, sometimes we get frustrated at this end. But of course, this is beyond us. I mean, I don't - we don't own this international coalition support. We have to say thank you to them because they're providing help for us. But I have to admit, still - this support and this air cover is still limited.
MCEVERS: With all due respect, in some ways it sounds like you want it both ways. You have to reject too much U.S. support because of pressures from certain parties in Iraq, but yet you're asking for more support than you're getting now.
AL-ABADI: Well, we have to differentiate between two sort of supports. What we are making sure is that - we don't want to boots on the ground, first off. We don't want combat troops on the ground to carry military missions on the ground. We don't need that. And this is not only us, to be honest with you. This is all of our coalition partners, including the U.S. They don't want boots on the ground. And we keep stressing it every time because there is a black media, a media who try to make things bad for us, that claiming there are troops on the ground, there are boots on the ground for every time we stress no, there isn't, we don't need them. And so of course, the U.S. side and the other coalition partners, they say the same. It doesn't mean that we reject the support. It's two different things. All we are saying is that we're stressing that we don't need these boots on the ground, but we will need more support in terms of air cover. And the Iraqis are asking for that.
MCEVERS: President Obama has received a lot of criticism for his handling of ISIS. In your view, is the U.S. administration taking ISIS - Daesh - seriously enough?
AL-ABADI: Well, I have to assume they are, but this is an election year.
AL-ABADI: What I'm asking U.S. politicians - I think there's an alliance now between Iraq and the United States. We need this out. We have to finish off Daesh. We have to win this war. I understand, yes, there's political democracy in the U.S. and all politicians, they have to say things which they believe in. But I always tell them, please know that whatever you say has an impact here on Iraq, has impact on the lives of people. We are fighting a very, very hard war against this terrorist organization.
MCEVERS: Are the things that are being said in this U.S. campaign for president that concern you, things that you've heard that worry you?
AL-ABADI: Well, yes, because I think when I hear - when we hear that you have to send an army of thousands - armies from all over the region to go in that area, I think that will cause a lot of alarm here. I mean, what sort of army, and who is controlling that army? What do they do there? Are they going to fight Daesh or are they going to fight something else? That something's really very disturbing.
MCEVERS: And I think you're referring to proposals that forces are not just sent from the U.S. but from partners in the Gulf states - Saudi Arabia, Jordan and others. Is that correct?
AL-ABADI: Well, it's - I mean, that's what some in the U.S. are probably trying to do. But here in Iraq, we're very careful because we don't want Iraq to end up in the middle of a regional fight between different countries. We have Iran on the east, we have Turkey on the north, we have Saudi Arabia in the south, we have Jordan on the west, and we have Syria as well on the west. That's why we've asked for other sort of support other than forces on the ground. We want to keep a good, neighborly relationship without them intervening in our own affairs. So no, we don't want regional army and regional force to fight in Iraq. We have enough Iraqi fighters, very courageous fighters, young fighters and other fighters who are willing to fight Daesh, and they're doing exactly that.
SHAPIRO: That's Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi speaking with our co-host Kelly McEvers. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.