National Security

Pentagon deploys headquarters unit to Iraq in sign mission is expanding

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Sept. 16, 2014. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Sept. 16, 2014. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT) MCT

In an expansion of American re-engagement in Iraq, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday deployed the first division headquarters unit to the war-torn country since the U.S. withdrawal in 2011.

About 200 soldiers from the Army’s 1st Infantry Division headquarters, based at Fort Riley, Kan., will bring to almost 1,400 the number of troops President Barack Obama has sent into Iraq since July to counter an offensive by Islamic State fighters.

Obama, Hagel and other U.S. leaders have insisted that the new American troops do not represent “boots on the ground” and will not see combat as they advise and help command Iraqi forces.

An additional 300 members of the Army’s oldest continuously operating division, called The Big Red One for its shoulder patch, which features the numeral “1” stitched in red, will be sent to the Central Command theater in the Middle East, ready to enter Iraq if needed. Currently, thousands of American troops are based in Kuwait.

The new troop deployments came a day after a second round of expanded American airstrikes into Syria, targeting a dozen oil refineries held by the Islamic State.

The Pentagon walked back from its earlier claims that the U.S.-led bombing raids, with Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates fighter jets participating, had cut off oil revenues of $2 million a day to the militants.

“The point was to render them incapable of using these refineries, which was a significant revenue stream for them,” Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, told reporters.

While releasing videos that showed the bombing raids inflicting major damage on some of the refineries in eastern Syria, the Pentagon acknowledged that its initial assessments of the strikes’ financial disruption to the Islamist fighters had been inflated.

“There are estimates by outside organizations that it could be up to that figure, but that $2 million figure is not ours,” Kirby said. “It’s not an estimate that the U.S. intelligence community or the Pentagon is endorsing or has come up with.”

Col. Ed Thomas, a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, added: “We don’t have high confidence about the revenue figures.”

The combined daily capacity of the targeted refineries was 300 to 500 barrels of crude.

“It doesn’t mean they always operate at that capacity,” Kirby said.

Matthew Reed, an oil analyst with the Foreign Reports consulting firm in Washington, said that even operating at full strength, the revenue flow would be less.

“A dozen tiny refineries are not putting out $2 million (a day) in product,” Reed told McClatchy.

David Butter, an oil analyst affiliated with the Chatham House think tank in London, said the small refineries might generate as little as $200,000 a day.

In any case, the oil from the refineries probably was used mainly to service the large number of gas-guzzling Humvees and other military vehicles captured by Islamic State fighters on their rampage through Iraq, Butter said.

The Pentagon acknowledged that despite the U.S.-led strikes to Syria, the Islamic State retains significant resources.

“They still have financing at their fingertips,” Kirby said. “They still have plenty of volunteers. They still have plenty of weapons and vehicles and the ability to move around. They still control a wide swath inside Iraq, no question about it.”

To help stem the Islamic State’s campaign in Iraq, the 216 American troops from the 1st Infantry Division headquarters will arrive in Iraq over the next month to lead U.S.-Iraqi Joint Operation Centers set up over the summer in Baghdad and the Kurdish regional capital of Irbil.

Kirby said 138 of the 216 soldiers will work at the Joint Operations Center in Baghdad, with 68 assigned to the Joint Operations Center in Irbil. Ten will be assigned to work at the Iraqi Defense Ministry in Baghdad.

Army Maj. Gen. Paul Funk, who served as a commander in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, will return to Iraq to lead the 1st Infantry Division headquarters unit.

Roy Gutman in Istanbul, Turkey, and Mark Seibel in Washington contributed to this report.