Obama doubling US troop levels in Iraq
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has authorized the deployment of an additional 1,500 U.S. troops to Iraq to assist Iraqi forces in their fight against the militant group known as the Islamic State, the White House announced Friday.
There are now about 1,400 troops in Iraq participating in Operation Inherent Resolve, and the additional deployments will more than double the American footprint there.
In a statement, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the additional troops will be in “a noncombat role to train, advise, and assist Iraqi Security Forces, including Kurdish 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 [the Islamic State group].”
The administration will request $5.6 billion in war funding from Congress for the campaign against the militants, $1.6 billion of which will go toward establishing an “Iraq Train and Equip Fund.”
“This funding will help reconstitute the Iraqi Army and strengthen the capability and capacity of our Iraqi partners to go on the offensive against [the Islamic State group],” Director of the Office of Management and Budget Shaun Donovan said in a statement.
U.S. Central Command will establish two expeditionary advise and assist operations centers to provide support for the Iraqis at the brigade headquarters level and above, according to the Defense Department. Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said that one of the centers will be in Anbar province and the other will be north of Baghdad.
CENTCOM also will establish four or five sites in northern, western and southern Iraq to accommodate the training of nine Iraqi army and three peshmerga brigades.
Kirby said the specific training sites have not yet been selected.
U.S. officials also want to train Sunni tribesmen to take on the Islamic State group, although it’s unclear to what extent the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government will allow that to happen.
“I don’t know if [Iraqi] Prime Minister [Haider al] Abadi has said specifically that he’s willing to arm them,” Kirby said. “We do expect that there will likely be a role for Sunni tribesmen in this training effort,” but “we’ve got more work to do in that regard.”
A senior administration official told reporters that there is a “tangible and concrete plan to first organize and equip 5,000 tribesmen in Anbar … This is now being openly discussed in Iraq and it’s starting to happen, and the government is getting resources out to those tribes. And we’re trying to work with them as best we can in terms of developing that capacity.”
The official spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity.
Kirby said that about 630 U.S. troops will be involved in the advisory mission and about 870 in the training effort. The operations centers and training sites will have force protection, officials said.
“They’re going to be able to defend themselves and defend the trainers and the advisers,” Kirby said.
Still, Iraq remains a dangerous place.
“Yeah, there’s risk,” Kirby said. “Of course there is.”
Kirby said the additional troops will begin to flow into Iraq later this month. However, it will take two to three months to set up the new sites and an additional six to seven months to complete the training of Iraqi forces.
Other coalition countries are expected to contribute people and money to the effort. Kirby said that “well over” 700 additional trainers will come from foreign partners. Officials said that “several” countries have already committed to the effort, but Denmark is the only one that has been publicly identified thus far.
The Iraqi government and other allies will also help foot the bill, officials said, but they did not specify how much money other countries are willing to pay.
The U.S. also has a plan to train moderate Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State group, but Kirby said there is “absolutely no connection” between the training mission in Iraq and the one in Syria, which hasn’t begun yet.
Officials said that the timing of the new train, advise and assist initiative was driven by a number of factors, including the completion of an offensive campaign plan.
“It’s being done now, quite frankly, because the Iraqis … have demonstrated the willingness and the skill to go after [the Islamic State group]” but “they’ve reached a point where they need additional help and guidance, particularly in areas like Anbar,” Kirby said. “What drove this was a request from the government of Iraq and then [the CENTCOM commander’s] assessment that this would be beneficial.”
Thus far American advisers have been limited to Baghdad and Irbil.
“What these additional forces will enable is flexibility for our personnel to go to different parts of country and to provide that function of supporting Iraqi Security Forces,” another senior administration official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
But the entire plan could be derailed by lawmakers, officials said.
“We need the authorization and the funding that comes with it in order to be able to conduct this mission, and [Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel] obviously is urging Congress to pass it as soon as possible,” Kirby told reporters.
Officials indicated that more troops could be sent to Iraq in the future, depending on how well things go.
“We’ll assess whether there need to be additional advisers based on judgments on the ground going forward,” one of the senior administration officials said.