Officials: U.S. to send more troops to Iraq

Robert Burns
Associated Press

Albuquerque, New Mexico — The U.S. is sending 615 more troops to Iraq as the stage is set for an Iraqi-led battle to reclaim Mosul, the northern city that has been the Islamic State group’s main stronghold for more than two years. The offensive, starting as soon as October, looms as a decisive moment for Iraq and for President Barack Obama’s much-criticized strategy to defeat IS.

“These forces will be primarily to enable Iraqi security forces and also (Kurdish) Peshmerga in the operations to isolate and collapse ISIL’s control over Mosul, but also to protect and expand Iraqi security forces’ gains elsewhere in Iraq,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter told reporters Wednesday. The Peshmerga are Kurdish militia fighters who are generally among the most proficient ground forces in Iraq but whose role is politically sensitive there.

Carter said the extra Americans would perform multiple roles at multiple locations, including at Qaraya West air base south of Mosul, where they will be building up the base to make it a hub for Iraq forces, and at al-Asad air base in Anbar province more than 200 miles away, where they will strengthen supply lines for the movement of supplies north toward Mosul.

Obama approved the deployment, which Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said would total 615 troops who would begin moving out “very soon.” Although the Americans are not to participate directly in combat, they may in some cases move forward with Iraqi combat forces and could face IS attacks.

There were 4,565 U.S. forces in Iraq as of Wednesday, according to the Pentagon. That number does not include as many as 1,500 troops who are there on temporary duty or are not counted for other bookkeeping reasons.

Carter underscored the potential risks to all U.S. troops involved in the campaign.

“We’re in a support role, but I need to make clear once again: American forces combatting ISIL in Iraq are in harm’s way,” he said. “No one should be in any doubt about that.”

Davis said most of the new U.S. troops will do logistics and maintenance, others will provide expanded intelligence and surveillance for the Mosul operation and some will advise and assist the Iraqi and Peshmerga forces. He said improvements at al-Asad air base, for example, could include adding instrument landing systems that would help with nighttime flight operations.

He also said that U.S. and coalition troops may be needed to help ensure that other towns and areas in Iraq remain secure and out of IS control. He said if militants try to launch attacks in other places while the Mosul operation goes on, the Iraqis need to be able to respond.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, in a statement posted on his official website, said Wednesday the extra U.S. troops would “provide support for security forces and the Iraqi heroes in the fight looming in the liberation of Mosul.” He said the Obama administration had approved his government’s request for the increase.

Emphasizing that the Americans are there as advisers, Abadi added: “It is our troops who will liberate the land.”

Abadi’s last point is central to the U.S.-Iraqi strategy for delivering what Carter has called “a lasting defeat” to the Islamic State. Although some in the U.S. have urged Obama to put larger numbers of American combat troops on the ground in Iraq to defeat IS quickly, the administration has argued that a victory on those terms would be short-lived. They assert that Iraq must muster the will and cohesiveness — militarily and politically — to defend its own territory once the Islamic State has been pushed out.

For Obama, Iraq is not the only important battlefield. He faces even greater uncertainty and a dimmer outlook in neighboring Syria. The Islamic State has lost territory in Syria over the past year.