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Iraq Feature: Amid Rising Protests, CIA Expands Co-operation with "Anti-Terrorism" Units (Wall Street Journal)

An interesting development, amid reports of escalating, mainly-Sunni protests inside Iraq since December, in part against detentions and the Government's anti-terrorism legislation and operations....

Adam Entous, Julian E. Barnes, and Siobhan Gorman report for The Wall Street Journal of an expanding role for the CIA inside Iraq because of the situation in Syria:

The Central Intelligence Agency is ramping up support to elite Iraqi antiterrorism units to better fight al Qaeda affiliates, amid alarm in Washington about spillover from the civil war in neighboring Syria, according to U.S. officials.

The stepped-up mission expands a covert U.S. presence on the edges of the two-year-old Syrian conflict, at a time of American concerns about the growing power of extremists in the Syrian rebellion.

Al Qaeda in Iraq, the terrorist network's affiliate in the country, has close ties to Syria-based Jabhat al Nusra, also known as the Nusra Front, an opposition militant group that has attacked government installations and controls territory in northern Syria. The State Department placed al Nusra on its list of foreign terror organizations in December, calling the group an alias for Al Qaeda in Iraq.

In a series of secret decisions from 2011 to late 2012, the White House directed the CIA to provide support to Iraq's Counterterrorism Service, or CTS, a force that reports directly to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, officials said.

The CIA has since ramped up its work with the CTS—taking control of a mission long run by the U.S. military, according to administration and defense officials. For years, U.S. special-operations forces worked with CTS against Al Qaeda in Iraq. But the military's role has dwindled since U.S. troops pulled out of the country at the end of 2011.

The switch to CIA authority will complement other U.S. efforts to counter al Nusra, a former U.S. official said. In Turkey, the CIA has officers working with select rebel groups, U.S. officials said. In Jordan, U.S. special-operations troops are training Jordanian forces in how to deal with Syria's chemical weapons should Damascus lose control of them or use them.

This shift to the CIA in Iraq also is in line with the Obama administration's goal of limiting the U.S. role in the Syrian conflict. The administration is providing nonlethal assistance to the opposition, but refuses to send weapons, in part to avoid aiding extremist elements among rebel forces.

Syrian violence increasingly is spilling into Iraq. Last week, about 50 Syrian soldiers who had sought safety in Iraq from rebel fighters were killed in an ambush on Iraqi territory. Iraqi officials said the attack bore the hallmarks of al Qaeda in Iraq.

U.S. officials saw the attack as an ominous sign of growing collaboration by militants on both sides of the Syria-Iraqi border.

"Right there along the border, they have a potential for a spillover of violence. What we just saw happen there is a reminder it is real. It is not just an imagined threat," a senior defense official said.

U.S. intelligence agencies believe al Qaeda in Iraq has provided a steady stream of fighters to work with al Nusra.

Al Nusra's fighters in recent months took control of a government base and an airfield in northern Syria, among other attacks. The group is seen as the most powerful force in rebel-controlled areas of Syria along the Turkish and Iraqi borders.

During a visit to Washington this month, Faleh al-Fayyad, Iraq's national security adviser, said about 300 Islamist fighters enter Syria each month to fight Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Some of those fighters are veterans of al Qaeda in Iraq, he said. "The experience that was gained by al Qaeda in Iraq has now started to be deployed in Syria," he said on March 4, referring to fighters, arms and tactics.

But the fighting in Syria also represents a long-term threat to Iraq, U.S. officials say. Some officials say al Nusra will eventually focus its attention on destabilizing the Iraqi government.

"There is certainly the potential, once Assad falls, for al Nusra Front to orient strongly against Iraq," the senior defense official said.

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