U.S. troops back in Iraq’s Anbar, scene of heaviest combat of 2003-11 war

The first U.S. troops to enter an active combat zone since President Barack Obama ordered the American military back to Iraq arrived Monday in Anbar, the Iraqi province where Americans suffered their heaviest losses during the 2003-2011 occupation, the Pentagon announced Monday.

The force of 50 troops has been tasked with determining how to send more American advisers and trainers to the restive province to prepare Iraqi forces to combat the Islamic State, which controls an estimated 80 percent of province. They will stay for several days at Asad Airbase, where U.S. troops were stationed during the occupation, to study the base’s current facilities and security needs.

Hundreds of American advisers are expected to be based at Asad in the coming months as part of the 1,500 additional troops Obama announced Friday would be dispatched to Iraq, more than doubling the U.S. troop presence there. In addition to Anbar, the new troops will be sent to some of the country’s most contested areas, including Diyala province in the east and the Kurdish regions in the north.

The U.S. plan for Anbar is particularly precarious. It calls for American personnel not only to train the mostly Shiite Iraqi army to wrest control of the Sunni-dominated part of Iraq from the Islamic State, but to build a Sunni-dominated national guard to be stationed in Anbar. U.S. officials have conceded their training will be ineffectual if the Iraqi government, led by Prime Minister Haider al Abadi, is not more inclusive of Sunnis.

Anbar is particularly haunting for the American military, which suffered roughly one-third of its deaths – 1,335 troops – there during the eight-year war. In addition, the province, whose primary cities are its provincial capital, Ramadi, and Fallujah, was home to some of the biggest U.S. military battles of the war. Fallujah has been under Islamic State control since January, and Ramadi is contested.

The Asad Airbase is the headquarters of the Iraqi Army’s 7th Infantry Division, which, according to an Oct. 29 report by the Institute for the Study of War, “was heavily depleted by desertions and had its leadership gutted” by an Islamic State ambush in December 2013, which killed the division commander and 17 members of his senior staff.

When Iraqi security units recently retreated from the town of Hit in the face of an Islamic State assault, they are believed to have pulled back to Asad, the Washington-based research center said. Reports indicate the base is surrounded by Islamic State militants.

Administration officials stressed Monday that the 50 troops, about half of whom are part of a protection force and the other half made up of logistics experts, will not engage in training during their assessment visit to the base. They were selected from among the about 1,400 troops already in Iraq.

Among the issues the assessors are likely to consider is whether the U.S. could base Apache attack helicopters or other combat aircraft at the base, where the advisers would be housed, and what security would be necessary to ensure the advisers’ safety.

The 1,500 additional troops are expected to arrive in Iraq at the end of the year. The administration has asked Congress for $5.6 billion to pay for the deployment and other costs related to operations against the Islamic State.