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Secrets hard to keep in Baghdad

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By McClatchy Newspapers
Friday, July 4, 2014, 9:39 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The United States finds itself confronting a delicate issue as it opens two joint operations centers in Iraq to help that nation's forces battle Sunni Muslim extremists who have seized much of the countryside: How much information can military advisers give their Iraqi counterparts without having sensitive data end up in the hands of two countries with whom the United States often is at odds, Iran and Russia?

Like the United States, which has authorized at least 300 troops to advise Iraqi government forces, Iran and — to a lesser extent — Russia have “boots on the ground” to help the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki counter the advance by the extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. Russia provided a dozen jet fighters and what it calls “technical advisers” on the planes to Iraq, while Iran has provided equipment and perhaps 100 military advisers who are thought to be deployed with the Shiite Muslim militias who have been called on to supplement the besieged Iraqi troops.

And like the United States, which is flying as many as three dozen reconnaissance flights over Iraq daily to gather information, Iran is flying surveillance drones over the country.

The United States, Russia and Iran have long been rivals in a wide range of conflicts, not the least of which is in Syria next door, where Washington is supporting rebels who were once allied with ISIS in their efforts to topple the government of President Bashar Assad. Iran and Russia back Assad.

Because of the odd alliance unfolding in Iraq, every piece of intelligence the United States obtains about the military situation will be assessed to determine how much can be shared with the Iraqis, three U.S. Defense officials told McClatchy. The officials, none of whom was willing to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, said they anticipated that the Iraqis would get only limited information and the source of the information often would be concealed. In some instances, it's likely that the United States will provide only a summary or analysis of what it knows.

But it remains possible that the United States might end up sharing intelligence information with Iran, a country that it hasn't had diplomatic relations with, much less a working military relationship, since the 1970s. In a question and answer session with reporters on Thursday, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it was “not impossible in the future” that the United States would be communicating with Iran about the situation in Iraq.

Sharing as much information as possible would be the goal under most circumstances.

“We're always careful, of course, with dealing with other nations and intelligence. But we believe there's great value, and we can't frankly do our job unless there's a measure of trust and open dialogue that we can have with Iraqi security forces. That's what our goal is,” said Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman.

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