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U.S. Jets Meet Limit as Iraqi Ground Fight Against ISIS Plods On

Navy fighter jets roar off this nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in support of Iraqi troops approaching Ramadi, a city in Anbar Province overrun by Islamic State fighters in one of the worst defeats for the American-led coalition.

The six-hour round-trip flights provide air cover for Iraqi troops on the ground as Navy and Marine fighter pilots and weapons officers drop bombs on Islamic State fighting positions. The American airmen destroy large trucks, weapons caches and the fighters themselves. No target is too small: They even strike individual heavy machine guns.

And yet, 10 weeks into the campaign to retake Ramadi, it remains in the control of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Since the fall of the city in May, Iraqi forces have cut off some resupply routes into its center and have advanced to some outlying suburbs.

Last week, in large part because of American airstrikes, Iraqi troops dismantled an Islamic State command base. They have retaken the University of Anbar, although American officials are unsure if the entire campus is secure.

But the urban heart of Ramadi is still a no-go zone, with dug-in Islamic State fighters continuing to control the city, rigging neighborhoods throughout with explosives.

From the flight deck of this carrier, the Theodore Roosevelt, it is the ultimate paradox: No matter how fast and expensive and advanced the American air campaign -- and it is all of those things -- warfare in Iraq remains a slow and grinding business.

About 65 combat planes -- F/A-18 Hornets and F/A-18E Super Hornets armed with 500-pound laser-guided bombs, plus EA-18G Growlers for jamming enemy radar -- cost $57 million each. They launch one after another in a series of catapulted slingshots, soaring into the skies from the Persian Gulf, and head to Iraq on their missions. The F/A-18s can travel up to one and a half times the speed of sound.

But they can go only as fast as their partners on the ground. In the new American way of warfare, those partners are not highly trained American troops, with more than a decade of combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan under their belts, communicating directly on the telephone in English with the American pilots overhead.

They are the Iraqi security forces, who tell their Iraqi commanders in Arabic where they need airstrikes. Those commanders then relay that information to command centers in Baghdad and Erbil, where American controllers then call the pilots in the air, in a convoluted game of telephone that can add crucial minutes to the overall enterprise.

Nor do the Iraqi ground forces have the combat engineering equipment that their American counterparts have. Capt. Lanier Bishop, a 31-year-old Marine fighter pilot from Marietta, Ga., said last week after a few flights over Ramadi in his Hornet that "not a single bridge around the city is left -- ISIL's blown them all up."

Normally, that would not pose much of a problem for American troops, who can lay their own bridges over the Euphrates River into the city. But the Iraqis do not have that kind of battlefield engineering equipment, and that has slowed them down as well.

What's more, Captain Bishop said he had seen destroyed highway overpasses, apparently blown up by the Islamic State, that block access into the city, further slowing the pace of the advance. And the militants have laid booby traps and bombs along routes into the city, American pilots said.

From the cockpit of his F/A-18 fighter jet a few days ago, Capt. Benjamin Hewlett of the Navy, commander of the carrier's air wing, said he had watched a convoy of Iraqi forces move inch by excruciating inch across a road outside Ramadi. "Every time you have an asymmetric threat like ISIS, they booby-trap everything, and that slows down the progress," he said in an interview aboard the Roosevelt.

But, he added, "the opposite of slow and deliberate is fast and sloppy, and then not always the right people die."

"The Iraqis are not interested in destroying Anbar University, and they are putting themselves at a lot of risk so that they don't do so," he said.

Vice Adm. John W. Miller, commander of the Navy's Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, voiced some optimism. "Eventually, I think we'll be successful, but we're only able to go as fast as the Iraqi security forces can go," he said.

On the enormous flight deck of the Roosevelt -- the Navy likes to describe its carriers as five acres of sovereign territory -- things look anything but slow. More than 5,000 bustling sailors in helmets, goggles, safety vests and color-coded shirts (the better to figure out who is doing what) move quickly between loud fighter jets.

The sailors in the red shirts are the ones who handle the bombs. The ones in blue shirts handle the aircraft elevators, while the ones in the white shirts are safety workers. The ones in purple handle fuel, the ones in green handle the catapults that sling the planes into the air, and the ones in yellow direct the pilots to take off and land.

On deck it is 113 degrees, and with the humidity the heat index regularly reaches 150 degrees.

As a fighter jet gets ready to take off, the scene becomes almost like ballet. The "shooters," the sailors in the yellow shirts, move in synchronized formation to direct the pilots, since no one can hear amid all the noise. For each flight, two shooters use their entire bodies to signal the pilots.

They hold their hands above their heads with two fingers up, then make fists, then wave again, then make fists again, then hold their arms straight out to the side, in the direction the plane is supposed to go.

That is just the start. After that the sailors do a karate chop, wag their fingers, point and then squat to touch their index fingers on the deck to indicate everything is clear for takeoff. And then, finally, they point straight ahead from the squatting position, and the catapults release the screaming planes into the air.

For the airmen, it is then on to Iraq -- not only to Ramadi, but also to Baiji, where Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants have been fiercely battling for months, and to Sinjar, where the persecution of Yazidis first prompted American airstrikes a year ago, and where Islamic State militants still battle for territory.

It is not always dramatic work.

Last Thursday, Lt. Michael Smallwood, 28, from Hilliard, Ohio, and Lt. John Izzo, 27, from North Babylon, N.Y., took off in their F/A-18 fighters in the scorching sun a little after 4 p.m. The heat index had just begun climbing down from 140 degrees. After refueling in the skies over southern Iraq, the two jets headed first toward Kisik Junction, a city west of Mosul, where Kurdish forces have battled Islamic State militants. The command came to Lieutenant Smallwood to scan the area for militants. He saw none, and 15 minutes later both he and Lieutenant Izzo needed to refuel.

They left Kisik Junction for the refueling, but then got an order to move to Baiji, north of Ramadi. There they scanned again for militants but saw nothing before it was time to return to the Roosevelt for what the Navy calls an "arrested landing" -- the tailhook of the plane catches a wire and goes from 150 miles an hour to zero in about two seconds.

A frustrating day? Lieutenant Izzo shrugged.

"Sometimes it's frustrating, " he said. "But it's never boring."

[Source: By Helene Cooper, Aboard U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, in the Persian Gulf, 12Aug15]

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War in Iraq
small logoThis document has been published on 14Aug15 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.