President Barack Obama’s authorization of an additional 1,500 troops to Iraq to fight against the Islamic State more than doubles the U.S. troop presence there and will place some of those new forces in Iraq’s most restive provinces.
The decision to bolster and expand the U.S. effort to confront the Islamic State’s hold on much of Iraq is likely to fuel concern that the United States was mission creeping back into a ground war just three years after U.S. troops withdrew all its forces from Iraq. When the U.S. re-engagement in Iraq began in July it consisted of a few hundred troops. Since then, the United States has not only added troops but begin a campaign of daily air strikes on Islamic State targets throughout Iraq.
The additional troops will begin arriving in Iraq by the end of the year, joining roughly 1,400 troops who are already on the ground and advising Iraqi security forces in Baghdad, the capital, and Irbil, the largest city in the nation’s Kurdish region.
The troops currently in Iraq in relatively safe parts of the country, but the new forces will enter its most dangerous areas. Divided into two groups, one portion will sent to Iraq’s restive Anbar province, where the Islamic State controls as much as 80 percent of the territory. Those troops are like to be assigned to Asad Airbase, Iraq’s third largest military facility which is currently besieged by Islamic State forces.
The second group will train forces throughout the country – in Anbar, Irbil, outside Baghdad and in the northeastern province of Diyala, a mixed Sunni-Shite community that borders Iran. In some cases, they will be working with the existing Iraqi army; in others, they will help build a national guard force designed to provide security and wrest control away from the Islamic State. The specific training sites have yet to be determined, defense officials told McClatchy.
An unspecified number of the 1,500 new troops will provide security.
Defense officials said they have not yet determined which troops will be dispatched to Iraq or whether they will be Special Forces.
In a press release announcing the new troops, the Defense Department said Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel recommended the expansion. Defense officials said that U.S. Central Command made the request in the past few weeks, based, in part, on the early overtures of inclusiveness by newly named Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi, defense officials said.
“We feel the government is moving in the right direction,” a defense official told McClatchy.
But while U.S. officials are confident, many Anbaris remain dubious that the new prime minister, a Shiite, will work with Sunnis, given the long distrust between the two sects. U.S. officials have set as a condition of sending advisers to Anbar a pledge from the Shiite-led government that it will provide weapons to the Sunni traibesmen in Anbar.
In a briefing with reporters last week, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the United States was willing to send advisers to Anbar to train Sunni force, but only if the Shiite-led Iraqi government would arm and build a largely Sunni national guard in Sunni-majority areas like Anbar.
“The precondition . . . is that the government of Iraq is willing to arm the tribes,” Dempsey said last week.
At the White House, officials said that while the troops would be entering the most besieged Iraqi provinces, they remained in a non-combat role.
But that may be a difficult promise to keep. The base where they are to conduct the training in Anbar has been attacked multiple time by the Islamic State.
The al Asad Airbase is the headquarters of the Iraqi Army’s 7th Infantry Division, which, according to an Oct. 29 report by the Insititute for the Study of War, “was heavily depleted by desertions and had its leadership gutted” by an Islamic State ambush December 2013 that killed the division commander and 17 members of his senior staff.
When Iraqi security units recently retreated from Hit in the face of an Islamic State assault, they are believed to have pulled back to al Asad, the institute, a Washington, D.C. based research center, said.