Undercover Islamic State (IS) fighters in the Iraqi army gathered intelligence about a U.S. military base in northern Iraq that came under heavy IS attack resulting in the death of an American Marine last month, Kurdish sources told VOA.
“We are 100 percent sure IS has informers there,” said Maj. Gen. Sirwan Barzani, the Kurdish commander of the Gwer-Makhmour frontline. “We are investigating the matter now and are looking for more evidence.”
A U.S. Marines’ artillery outpost near Mosul, Firebase Bell, is the first U.S. base established in Iraq since the return of American forces to the country in 2014. The base came under heavy IS fire in recent weeks before the Pentagon made its existence public.
The IS attack in mid-March resulted in the death of U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Louis F. Cardin of Temecula, California, and injuries to several U.S. troops.
The Pentagon did not release specifics about the base before the IS attack because it was not fully operational, according to U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for the U.S. military operation against IS. Warren would not comment to VOA on the Kurdish allegations of IS spies.
“We take great care to protect important information, and we work closely with our Iraqi partners to do the same," he said. "We will not further publicly discuss matters of intelligence.”
IS spies not new
Iraqi officials in Baghdad contacted by VOA also declined comment on the Kurdish claims. But the chief of the Iraqi Nineveh operations command in Northern Iraq near the U.S. base rejected the accusations and said there were no IS spies in his unit.
“This is absolutely not true and has no basis. I don’t even want to talk about it,” Major General Najim Abdullah al-Jubouri said.
Kurdish leaders and Iraqi officials have a contentious political and social relationship. The Kurds operate a governing authority in northern Iraq and want independence from Baghdad. The fight against IS in northern Iraq is complicated as Kurdish and Iraqi forces have separate military units that cooperate only within limits.
Iraq legislator Shakhawan Abdullah, a Kurd who is head of the Iraqi parliamentary security and defense committee, said Baghdad has long feared IS infiltration in its military ranks.
“This is not a new issue,” he said. “In the past IS spies inside the Iraqi army have not only provided information to IS but also have engaged in direct suicide bombing.”
Abdullah said IS spies were behind a January bombing at Camp Speicher, an Iraqi military base which is a former U.S. installation. Twelve members of Iraqi security forces were killed in the incident.
“Some of the soldiers were arrested by Iraqi defense ministry, and they now face a life sentence,” Abdullah said of the troops linked to IS.
Iraqis with IS ties
Kurdish commanders say IS members in recent weeks infiltrated the Iraqi army and its allied Sunni militia Hashd al-Watani, stationed near Firebase Bell in Makhmour.
“IS has information sources inside the Iraqi army and Sunni forces near the U.S. artillery base,” said Najat Ali, the Kurdish commander of Makhmur front.
According to Ali, IS has exploited strong social and religious ties with some Iraqi soldiers who helped it obtain firsthand information on most military moves in the area.
“There are Iraqi soldiers whose father, brother, or uncle is a member of IS," said Ali. "We have become very suspicious of them."
Iraqi parliament member Abdullah said IS would not have been able to locate the American base without inside information from the Iraqi army.
“I have no doubt that Daesh [IS] wouldn’t have been able to attack the American forces there without spies in the Iraqi army there,” he said.
But Barzani, the Kurdish commander, said the Kurds “don’t have documents to prove” the spying allegations.
“IS has used drones to collect information on the area,” he said. “But their attack on the U.S. firebase in Makhmur was so precise and can’t be only through drones. They for sure have informers there.”