BAGHDAD — President Obama will deploy 560 more troops to Iraq to help retake Mosul, the largest city controlled by the Islamic State, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter announced on Monday. It is the latest escalation of the United States’ role in the Iraq war by Mr. Obama, who ran for office on a pledge to end America’s involvement in the conflict.
Many of the newly deployed troops will be based at an airfield 40 miles south of Mosul that was reclaimed by Iraqi soldiers on Saturday. The additional troops will bring the official number of American service members in Iraq to 4,647 — far fewer than the 130,000 the United States had in the country about a decade ago.
American commanders plan to use the base, Qayyarah Airfield West, as a staging area to provide logistical support to Iraqi forces as they try to retake Mosul. The Iraqis have struggled to move troops, resources and equipment — tasks that will become even harder as their forces move closer to Mosul, which is 250 miles from their major supply hubs in Baghdad.
“We need to move to this place to be as close to the fighting as we have been,” said Lt. Gen. Sean B. MacFarland, the head of American forces in Iraq, who addressed members of the news media with Mr. Carter after the announcement at the airport in Baghdad.
Some of the American troops who will be stationed at the airfield specialize in infrastructure support, such as building bridges — a technical skill the Iraqis will need for the assault on Mosul because the Islamic State has destroyed many around the city since it took control of Mosul in 2014.
The new troop deployment comes two years after Mr. Obama said that while the United States would help the Iraqi military reclaim territory from the Islamic State, those efforts would “not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.” Since then, he has steadily increased the number of troops in Iraq and given them more authority. Three service members have been killed.
In April, Mr. Carter came to Baghdad on a similar trip to announce that Mr. Obama had given American military advisers the approval to work closer to the front lines of the conflict with smaller units of Iraqi forces. As part of that announcement, Mr. Obama deployed an additional 217 troops to Iraq. The increase has raised concerns among many Americans who believe that the United States is on a never-ending mission in Iraq.
The announcement occurred as Iraqi soldiers appeared to be gaining momentum on the battlefield. Mosul is now the only major city in the country that the Iraqis do not control, and the Islamic State has not seized any substantial new territory since May 2015. But the Iraqis do not seem to be able to prevent the Islamic State from carrying out devastating suicide attacks in Baghdad, including one earlier this month whose death toll has reached 300 people.
To help the Iraqis stop the bombings, Mr. Carter said a three-star American general in charge of the American military’s task force on improvised explosive devices would be sent to Baghdad to work with the Iraqis.
Mr. Carter said the general and his staff would bring “that substantial experience and tradecraft that we learned by hard experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
American military commanders have begun calling the Qayyarah Airfield West “Q West,” or “Key West,” because its Iraqi name is difficult to pronounce. As the Iraqi military closed in on the airfield last week, Islamic State fighters quickly fled and the Iraqis, who lost control of the base in 2014, faced little resistance as they reclaimed it. Iraqi military officials, however, said in interviews on Monday that there was substantial damage to the air base that would require significant repairs.
“We were surprised by how destroyed the base was and how they had done it in an organized way,” said Lt. Gen. Abdul Ghani al-Asadi, the commander of Iraqi counterterrorism forces, who planned and participated in the operation to retake the airfield.
General Asadi said one of two runways at the airfield had been badly damaged, along with some buildings.
A small group of American forces surveyed the airfield shortly after it was seized by the Iraqis, but American military officials said it was unclear how much time it would take before cargo planes and other aircraft could land there. Among the troops who are being deployed to the airfield are engineers who have expertise in building and fixing runways.
Although the official number of United States troops in Iraq will rise to 4,647, that figure understates the actual number of service members in the country. The Pentagon uses a system for counting troops that excludes certain service members who are supposed to be stationed in the country for less than four months, and for commandos. Defense Department officials have said there are probably more than 5,000 Americans in Iraq.
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(via NY Times)