Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby.

Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby. (Defense Department file photo)

WASHINGTON — The 1st Infantry Division headquarters will deploy to Iraq soon as the U.S. military steps up its campaign against Islamic State militants, the Pentagon said Thursday.

It will be the first division headquarters assigned to Iraq since U.S. forces withdrew from the country at the end of 2011.

About 500 soldiers from the Fort Riley, Kan.-based division will be heading for the Middle East next month with about 200 of them going to Iraq, Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said.

“They’re going to provide command and control of the ongoing advise-and-assist effort in support of Iraqi and peshmerga forces. And they’re going to continue to help us all degrade and destroy ISIL,” Kirby told reporters, referring to the Islamic State by one of its acronyms.

The new headquarters personnel will be working out of the joint operations centers in Baghdad and the Kurdish capital of Irbil, as well as the Iraqi defense ministry. An advance element of about 10 soldiers is already in Iraq preparing for the influx of the additional troops, Kirby said.

These soldiers will not embed with Iraqi units in the field, Kirby said.

“The troops will advise and assist the Iraqi Security Forces to help them go on the offense against ISIL and conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance flights,” the division said in a statement on its website. “This will also increase the United States’ capacity to target ISIL and coordinate the activities of the U.S. military across Iraq.”

Rick Brennan, Jr., an analyst at the Rand Corporation and former Army officer, said sending elements of a division headquarters and the general officer who will come with it will make it easier to coordinate both with international allies as well as Iraqi and Kurdish forces in the campaign against the Islamic State, which overran about a third of Iraq in an offensive last summer.

Brennan said the decision also signals that there will be a significant U.S. military presence in Iraq for the foreseeable future.

“I think there’s been recognition that what the United States is doing in Iraq is going to be long term,” he said.

Kirby acknowledged that the timeline for the headquarters element’s mission is uncertain.

“I just don’t know for how long they’re going to be there or how and when they might be replaced,” he said.

The 1st Division said the soldiers were preparing for a one-year assignment.

The 200 headquarters servicemembers who will be in Iraq are part of the increase of 475 troops that President Barack Obama authorized two weeks ago. The U.S. has been sending teams of military advisers to assist the Iraqi security forces, many of which have performed poorly against the Islamic State.

The other 300 troops from the 1st Infantry will be supporting the command and control mission from outside of Iraq. Kirby did not identify the country where they will be stationed.

The deployment of the new headquarters element is just the latest step in an expanding U.S. role in Iraq. The process began three months ago after the Islamic State militant group overran much of the country.

On June 16, the Pentagon announced that 275 personnel were being sent to secure U.S. diplomatic facilities as Islamic State fighters marched towards Baghdad. Later that month, President Barack Obama announced that 300 troops would go the country to assess the capabilities of the troubled Iraqi security forces and set up joint operations centers near Baghdad and Irbil. About 200 additional security personnel were sent around that time.

On Aug. 8, the U.S. military commenced airstrikes and humanitarian air drops as terrorists threatened to massacre religious minorities near Mount Sinjar. The bombing campaign later expanded to support Iraqi ground forces and prevent the militants from damaging the Mosul and Haditha dams.

Two weeks ago, after a new Iraqi government was formed, Obama announced that another 475 troops would deploy to advise and assist Iraqi forces.

As of Thursday, 1,268 of the 1,600 American troops authorized to be in Iraq were in country. The Pentagon has also carried out approximately 200 airstrikes there.

In early June, there were only about 200 American troops in Iraq manning the Office of Security Cooperation.

Stars and Stripes reporter Heath Druzin contributed to this report. Twitter: @JHarperStripes

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