WASHINGTON — President Obama has authorized the deployment of up to 450 more American troops to Iraq to train and assist the Iraqi forces battling the Islamic State, the White House announced on Wednesday, signaling a major shift of focus in the fight against the Sunni militant group.
The United States forces will use Al Taqqadum, an Iraqi base near the town of Habbaniya in eastern Anbar Province, as their training hub, the White House said. Mr. Obama opted to send them at the request of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq, and after consultation with Ashton B. Carter, the secretary of defense, and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“These new advisers will work to build capacity of Iraqi forces, including local tribal fighters, to improve their ability to plan, lead and conduct operations against ISIL in eastern Anbar under the command of the prime minister,” Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said in a statement, referring to the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS and ISIL. “This train, advise and assist mission builds on lessons learned during the past several months and is just one aspect of our commitment to support the Iraqi Security Forces.”
Mr. Obama will also speed up the delivery of weapons and equipment to Iraqi forces, including pesh merga and tribal fighters who are under Iraqi command.
The new plan follows months of behind-the-scenes debate about how prominently plans to retake Mosul, another Iraqi city that fell to the Islamic State last year, should figure in the early phase of the military campaign against the group.
The Obama administration took pains to assert that the steps did not constitute a change in strategy.
“This decision does not represent a change in mission, but rather adds another location for D.O.D. to conduct similar activities in more areas in Iraq,” the Department of Defense said in a statement. “This effort is in keeping with our overarching strategy to work with partners on the ground to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL.”
It said the new location would bring American troop levels in Iraq up to 3,550.
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The fall of Ramadi last month effectively settled the administration debate, at least for the time being. American officials said Ramadi was now expected to become the focus of a lengthy campaign to regain Mosul at a later stage, possibly not until 2016.
The additional American troops will arrive as early as this summer, a United States official said, and will focus on training Sunni fighters with the Iraqi Army. The official called the coming announcement “an adjustment to try to get the right training to the right folks.”
The troops will set up the training center primarily to advise and assist Iraqi security forces and to engage and reach out to Sunni tribes in Anbar, a senior United States official said. The focus for the Americans will be to try to accelerate the integration of Sunni fighters into the Iraqi Army, which is dominated by Shiites. That will be an uphill task as many of the Sunni fighters in the area do not trust the Iraqi Army.
But the Obama administration hopes that the outreach will reduce the Iraqi military’s reliance on Shiite militias to take back territory from the Islamic State. “The Sunnis want to be part of the fight,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “This will help empower them, creating more recruits and more units to fight ISIL,” he added, using another acronym for the Islamic State.
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He said the arms and equipment sent will go to the Iraqi government forces in Anbar, not directly to the Sunni tribes, adding that the new strategy was not a change in policy to directly arm Sunnis, but rather a faster way to get equipment and arms to the battlefield, which the Iraqi government had requested.
The United States Central Command’s emphasis on retaking Mosul depended critically on efforts to retrain the Iraqi Army, which appear to have gotten off to a slow start. Some Iraqi officials also thought the schedule for taking Mosul was unrealistic, and some bridled when an official from the Central Command told reporters in February that an assault to capture the city was planned for this spring.
Now, pending approval by the White House, plans are being made to use Al Taqqadum, an Iraqi base near the town of Habbaniya, as another training hub for the American-led coalition.
Alistair Baskey, a National Security Council spokesman, said that the administration hoped to accelerate the training and equipping of Iraqi security forces, and that “those options include sending additional trainers.”
The United States now has about 3,000 troops, including trainers and advisers, in Iraq. But the steps envisioned by the White House are likely to be called half-measures by critics because they do not call for an expansion of the role of American troops, such as the use of spotters to call in airstrikes.
There has long been debate within the administration about what the first steps in the campaign should be.
Led by Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the Central Command has long emphasized the need to strike a blow against the Islamic State by recapturing Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which was taken by the group in June 2014. Mosul is the capital of Nineveh Province in northern Iraq and was the site of a sermon that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, defiantly delivered in July. The Baiji refinery, a major oil complex, is on a main road to Mosul.
While General Austin was looking north, State Department officials have highlighted the strategic importance of Anbar Province in western Iraq.
Anbar is home to many of Iraq’s Sunni tribes, whose support American officials hope to enlist in the struggle against the Islamic State. Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar, is less than 70 miles from Baghdad, and the province borders Saudi Arabia and Jordan, two important members of the coalition against the Islamic State.
The differing perspectives within the administration came to the fore in April when Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asserted that Ramadi was not central to the future of Iraq.
The Islamic State’s capture of Ramadi last month also punctured the administration’s description that the group was on the defensive.
Suddenly, it appeared that the Islamic State, not the American-led coalition, was on the march. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq scrambled to assemble a plan to regain the city.
The Islamic State now controls two provincial capitals, as well as the city of Falluja. With the help of American air power, the Iraqis have retaken Tikrit, northwest of Baghdad, but so many buildings there are still rigged with explosives that many of its residents have been unable to return.
To assemble a force to retake Ramadi, the number of Iraqi tribal fighters in Anbar who are trained and equipped is expected to increase to as many as 10,000 from about 5,500.
More than 3,000 new Iraqi soldiers are to be recruited to fill the ranks of the Seventh Iraqi Army division in Anbar and the Eighth Iraqi Army division, which is in Habbaniya, where the Iraqi military operations center for the province is also based.
But to the frustration of critics like Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who say that the United States is losing the initiative to the Islamic State, the Obama administration has yet to approve the use of American spotters on the battlefield to call in airstrikes in and around Ramadi. Nor has it approved the use of Apache helicopter gunships to help Iraqi troops retake the city.
General Dempsey alluded to the plan to expand the military footprint in Iraq during a visit to Israel on Tuesday, saying that he had asked war commanders to look into expanding the number of training sites for Iraqi forces.
The United States is not the only country that is expanding its effort.
Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, said this week that his country would send up to 125 additional troops to train Iraqi forces, including in how to clear improvised bombs.
Italy is also expected to play an important role in training the Iraqi police.
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(via NY Times)