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 pershmerga militia to seize the long-contested city of Kirkuk when Iraqi troops abandoned it. Relations have deteriorated since. On Wednesday, Maliki accused Kurdish President Massoud Barzani sheltering Islamic State members. The next day, Barzani demanded that 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 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 both 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 who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he’d signed nondisclosure agreements with the U.S. government on the matter.
“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.
The official refused to directly identify the location of the facility but when he was shown the blurred-out location on an online satellite-mapping service he joked, “The peshmerga do not have the influence to make Google blur an area on these maps. I will leave the rest to your conclusions.”
But the official wasn’t shy discussing the past arrangement and potential for a future expansion of the relationship.
“Most of our ‘mukhabarat’ worked directly alongside both the CIA and JSOC throughout the war in Iraq because of our language ability and long experience battling both Saddam and radical terrorists,” he said, using the Arabic term for “information office,” usually ascribed to local intelligence.
“Peshmerga fighters fought closely alongside the American Green Berets throughout northern Iraq in places like Mosul, Tal Afar and Kirkuk because we are very professional and trusted,” he said. “And many of our men would work directly with the most secret units as interpreters and Iraqi experts.”
During a recent visit to the site, extensive construction of new roads off the main highway could be seen, as well as what appeared to be construction of a fortified gate complex to protect access, which previously had been controlled by a simple dirt road and checkpoint flanked by two bunkers guarded by men in peshmerga uniforms.
Armored sport utility vehicles driven by military-appearing Westerners in civilian clothes were seen entering and exiting the facility in convoy fashion.
“Irbil is a very friendly place for people in the intelligence business,” a Western military attache said on the condition he not be identified because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the matter. “So many locals worked with the Americans and remember them fondly, that you didn’t need the hardened defenses that you’d find normally this close to a battlefield.”
The attache said the existence of the facility had long been known to residents. “Nobody cared before because everyone is on good terms,” he said.
A retired American special forces officer said it would be a relatively simple matter for the United States to work with peshmerga forces. “A lot of those pesh guys were known and respected for their training and trustworthiness by ODA, OGA and the Secret Squirrels long before the 2003 invasion,” he said, using the acronyms for “Operational Detachment Alpha,” the official designation of the Green Berets, and “other government agency,” a common slang term for the CIA. “Secret Squirrels” is a term soldiers use to describe Joint Special Operations Command units that usually don’t have an obvious unit designation.
A special operations officer, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he’s legally bound not to publicly discuss his career without specific Defense Department permission, said working with the Kurds would overcome a number of difficult issues that would be present as U.S. advisers worked with the Iraqi army.
“It’s a natural fit that as these guys look around at the collapsed Iraqi army and how all of its remaining competent units are either infiltrated by or directly led by Iranian Revolutionary Guard commanders that there would be a high degree of discomfort directly operating with them,” he said. “But the Kurds are trustworthy, reliable and already know how to fight alongside your units. It’s a natural fit to run an operation from Irbil with the pesh, while the other advisers in Baghdad try to stem the bleeding of the Iraqi army and protect that huge U.S. embassy complex.”
He also noted there are advantages to working with Kurdish forces if the United States decides to launch airstrikes against Islamic State positions.
“Airstrikes are close to useless without good intelligence and targeting, and that’s going to be hard to come by on the Baghdad side of things,” he said. “To me it’s a no-brainer. The only real way you can do that is with the Kurds.”
Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this report from Washington.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @mitchprothero