WASHINGTON — The U.S. military named a two-star general to head up the teams that have been sent to Iraq to determine what U.S. military assistance might help halt the advance of radical Islamist insurgents who have seized control of much of the country in the past two weeks.
Army Maj. Gen. Dana J.H. Pittard, the deputy commanding general of operations for the 3rd Army, based in Kuwait, will direct the work of the 300 or so advisers President Barack Obama has said will be assigned to Iraq to help the government in Baghdad repulse the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. ISIL fighters in the past two weeks have seized Mosul, the country’s second largest city; Tikrit, the hometown of the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein; and are threatening the Iraqi government’s hold on the country’s largest oil refinery at Baiji.
About 180 of those advisers are now in Iraq, including 50 who arrived on Thursday, the Pentagon said.
The assignment of a two-star general to lead just 300 troops underscores the unusual nature of the current crisis in Iraq, where one of the first tasks will be to fill an intelligence gap that U.S. officials said has existed about conditions in Iraq since the United States withdrew the last of its troops in 2011.
Pittard, who will lead the Iraq Joint Forces Land Component Command, also likely will work as a quasi-diplomat to Iraqi commanders, experts said. Pittard, however, will answer to U.S. Central Command, the military unit that has responsibility for American military activities in the Middle East.
“Having a two-star there will indicate his role will be, in part, political engagement,” said Jessica Lewis, research director of the Washington-based Institute for the Study of the War.
Pittard will find a complex situation in the Iraq assignment. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also has asked for assistance from Iran, which reportedly has sent its own advisers, and on Thursday he welcomed airstrikes against ISIL forces by the Syrian air force. Both Iran and Syria are bitter rivals of the United States in the Middle East.
Al-Maliki has asked the United States to conduct airstrikes against ISIL forces, but the Obama administration has so far declined to undertake them. Al-Maliki also is seeking Russian-made fighter aircraft amid frustration that the first delivery of U.S. F-16s won’t arrive in Iraq until September.
One of the first tasks Pittard is expected to undertake is determining why the U.S.-trained Iraqi military simply melted away in Mosul when confronted with ISIL forces June 10. The abandonment of their positions in Mosul set off a rout that saw ISIL come within two hours of Baghdad before the advance slowed and allowed Kurdish militiamen to seize control of the long disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
The U.S. advisers are expected to quiz lower-level soldiers on why the retreat took place, and they are likely to get more information than what can be learned from senior Iraqi officials. “There is a broader question of evaluating the security forces,” Lewis said, “and I am not sure that can be answered at the ministerial level.”
A U.S. Military Academy graduate, Pittard served in the 1991 Gulf War and was part of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. His last Iraq assignment was commander of the Iraqi Assistance Group, which was designed to mentor Iraq’s nascent security forces. He also served as commander of Fort Bliss in Texas.