IRBIL, Iraq – A supposedly secret but locally well-known CIA station on the outskirts of Irbil’s airport is undergoing rapid expansion as the United States considers whether to engage in a war against Islamist militants who’ve seized control of half of Iraq in the past month.
Western contractors hired to expand the facility and a local intelligence official confirmed the construction project, which is visible from the main highway linking Irbil to Mosul, the city whose fall June 9 triggered the Islamic State’s sweep through northern and central Iraq. Residents around the airport say they can hear daily what they suspect are American drones taking off and landing at the facility.
Expansion of the facility comes as it seems all but certain that the autonomous Kurdish regional government and the central government in Baghdad, never easy partners, are headed for an irrevocable split – complicating any U.S. military hopes of coordinating the two entities’ efforts against the Islamic State.
The autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government angered Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki when early in the crisis it sent its peshmerga militia to seize the long-contested city of Kirkuk when Iraqi troops abandoned it. Relations have deteriorated since. On Wednesday, al-Maliki accused Kurdish President Massoud Barzani of sheltering Islamic State members. The next day, Barzani demanded that al-Maliki resign.
Overnight, Kurdish troops seized oil fields operated by Iraq’s Northern Oil Co., whose exports had been controlled by the central government, and on Friday, Kurdish legislators began a boycott of the Iraqi government.
The developments all come as the United States, which has said it won’t come to Iraq’s assistance unless al-Maliki takes steps to make his government more inclusive, is expected to announce early next week its assessment of the military situation in the country. Pentagon officials said the assessment might be made public as early as Monday.
But U.S. officials have known for some time that it was likely that they’d need to coordinate any steps it takes in Baghdad and in Irbil, where the peshmerga has worked closely over the years with the CIA, U.S. special forces and the Joint Special Operations Command, the military’s most secretive task force, which has become a bulwark of counterterrorism operations. Peshmerga forces already are manning checkpoints and bunkers to protect the facility, which sits just a few hundred yards from the highway.
“Within a week of the fall of Mosul we were being told to double or even triple our capacities,” said one Western logistics contractor.
“They needed everything from warehouse space to refrigeration capacity, because they operate under a different logistics command than the normal military or embassy structures,” the contractor said. “The expansion was aggressive and immediate.”
Other contractors who deal extensively with moving heavy equipment through Irbil’s airport, which has supported a rapidly expanding oil and gas drilling industry, said they were aware of the expansion. One British oil executive said he’d detected a “low-key but steady stream of men, equipment and supplies for an obvious expansion of the facility.” The local Kurdish intelligence official described what was taking place as a “long-term relationship with the Americans.”
In a statement July 3, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that Irbil would host such a center, in addition to one being set up in Baghdad, and suggested that it had already begun operating.
“We have personnel on the ground in Irbil, where our second joint operations center has achieved initial operating capability,” he said then.
“It’s no secret that the American special forces and CIA have a close relationship with the peshmerga,” said the Kurdish official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing covert military operations. He added that the facility had operated even “after the Americans were forced out of Iraq by Maliki,” a reference to the 2011 U.S. troop withdrawal after the Obama administration and the Iraqi government couldn’t agree on a framework for U.S. forces remaining in the country.