President Barack Obama moved Friday to escalate the U.S. military role in Iraq against the Islamic State, deciding to more than double the number of American troops and dispatching some to Iraq’s most restive provinces.
The Obama administration insisted that the troops would remain out of harm’s way, there only to train local forces and not as combat troops themselves. But Obama’s move, coupled with a call on Congress for an additional $5.6 billion to pay for the expanding U.S. effort, was likely to fuel concern that the United States could be creeping into a ground war just three years after the U.S. withdrew its forces from Iraq.
The additional troops will begin arriving in Iraq by the end of the year, joining roughly 1,400 troops already on the ground and advising Iraqi security forces in Baghdad, the capital, and Irbil, the capital and largest city of the nation’s Kurdish region.
While U.S. troops currently in Iraq are in relatively safe parts of the country, the new forces will enter its most dangerous areas – with officials saying they didn’t want to be “limited by geography.” One group will be sent to Anbar province, where the Islamic State controls as much as 80 percent of the territory. Those troops are likely to be assigned to Asad Air Base, which is currently besieged by Islamic State forces.
The American troops will have two missions.
Roughly 630 troops will begin arriving in Iraq by the end of the year, advising Iraqi security forces in Anbar province and Irbil.
A second group of roughly 770 troops will train nine Iraqi brigades and three brigades of peshmerga – the Kurdish militia – throughout the country: in Anbar, Irbil, outside Baghdad and in the northeastern province of Diyala, a mixed Sunni-Shite area that borders Iran.
In some cases, the U.S. troops 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, but in a briefing with reporters, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said the Iraqi forces will be combat ready in about 10 months.
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 exclusively special forces.
Although the new troops could enter the most besieged Iraqi provinces, the White House stressed that they, like those already deployed, will remain in a non-combat role and will “train, advise and assist” Iraqi forces.
“U.S. troops will not be in combat, but they will be better positioned to support Iraqi Security Forces as they take the fight to ISIL,” Press Secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement, using an acronym for the Islamic State.
Obama did not speak publicly about the decision.
Senior administration officials rejected suggestions that the increase represents “mission creep,” noting that the nature of the operations remains the same – training and advising Iraqis.
“The president has made it clear we aren’t going to be putting troops back into combat,” said a senior administration who spoke with reporters on the condition of anonymity as a matter of administration policy.
The decision to send more troops into Iraq came as Obama met with congressional leaders, three days after Republicans seized control of the Senate in a tidal wave election that is likely to crimp Obama’s last two years in office. The administration said the decision was not driven by the political calendar, noting that the plans had been refined over several weeks.
Congressional leaders were briefed on the details, and senior administration officials said they expect Congress to take up the $5.6 billion request before the new Congress convenes in January.
Obama is also looking for new authorization for military force against the Islamic State. House Speaker John Boehner said Republicans “will be ready to work with him to get it approved,” but he noted that historically presidents have identified the need for the use of military force and worked to build bipartisan support for its passage.
Obama made the call based on a request of the Iraqi government and the recommendation of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and military commanders. 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.
“We feel the government is moving in the right direction,” a defense official told McClatchy, speaking on condition of anonymity under the conditions of the briefing.
But while U.S. officials expressed confidence, 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 Sunni tribesmen 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 forces, 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 at the time. And yet Kirby could not say Friday whether Abadi offered any assurances that his government would indeed arm Sunni tribesman.
The non-combat role for U.S. troops may be a difficult promise to keep. The base where they are to conduct the training in Anbar has been attacked multiple times by the Islamic State.
The Asad Air Base 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 in 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 Asad, said the institute, a Washington-based research center.