U.S. sending advisers closer to front in Iraq; Americans are to assist smaller units engaged in day-to-day ISIS battle
The move, announced by Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, puts the Americans closer to the Iraqi soldiers involved in combat.
President Obama will send American military advisers closer to the front lines of the conflict against the Islamic State in Iraq, part of a series of measures that will escalate the United States military campaign to defeat the extremist group.
The advisers — who up until now had been assisting Iraqi military divisions, which have about 10,000 troops — will extend that assistance to units of about 2,000 soldiers who are more directly involved in day-to-day combat, Defense Department officials said on Monday.
American and Iraqi commanders want the advisers, who the officials say will not be on the actual front lines, to move closer to the fighting so they can provide timely, tactical guidance to the Iraqis as they prepare for the long-awaited assault on Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which was seized by the Islamic State in 2014.
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, who made the announcement in a speech to dozens of American troops at the airport in Baghdad, said the Pentagon would also deploy several Apache attack helicopters and long-range artillery to aid in the fight. The Apaches, known for their withering — and accurate — fire, can quickly provide powerful air support to ground forces. He said that the Pentagon would also increase its logistical support for the Iraqi military.
The announcement of an enhanced American presence in Iraq comes as the administration has said that the campaign against the Islamic State is gaining momentum. In recent days, the Iraqis reclaimed the city of Hit, where commanders estimated there were several hundred Islamic State fighters. The administration says that the Iraqis, with American advisers and air and logistical support, are now poised to move toward larger cities.
Yet it is not clear how seriously to take those claims. It has been two years since the administration began operations against the Islamic State, and the military estimates that the organization still has 10,000 fighters in Iraq. The group controls large sections of the country, including Mosul. Defense Department officials had said that the Iraqis would recapture Mosul last year. Now, they say that the earliest that could happen is later this year.
Mr. Obama said in an interview with CBS News that aired on Monday that it was his expectation “that by the end of the year, we will have created the conditions whereby Mosul will eventually fall.”
“As we see the Iraqis willing to fight and gaining ground, we must make sure that we are providing them more support,” he said.
Mr. Carter’s visit to Baghdad on Monday was not announced. He flew from Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, then took a helicopter to the Green Zone, where he met with the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, who has been contending with Shiite leaders backed by Iran who oppose an expanded American role in the country. In December, Mr. Abadi declined to take up the Pentagon’s offer of Apache helicopters and advisers to work with smaller units.
Mr. Carter did not say why Mr. Abadi was now in favor of the measures, but he said that he had discussed the use of the helicopters with him on Monday.
“He understands this capability perfectly well, and he understood it would be necessary for just these cases and agreed with me that we would provide it,” Mr. Carter said, referring to how the helicopters would be used when forces on the ground needed quick air support.
The package of military aid will involve dispatching more Army Special Forces, or Green Berets, who specialize in advising and training foreign military forces. Mr. Obama will increase the number of American forces that commanders can use in Iraq by 217, to 4,087. That number, however, is largely symbolic because the Pentagon uses a system that has exceptions for soldiers who are supposed to be in the country less than four months, and commandos. Defense Department officials have said that there are more than 5,000 service members in Iraq.
Mr. Carter said that sending more American forces into Iraq would also enable the Pentagon to increase its logistical support of the Iraqi military, which he said would become even more important as the Iraqis move toward Mosul.
“It’s particularly important now as Iraqi forces relocate from where we have trained and equipped them, northward importantly to Mosul, and their moving around,” Mr. Carter said.
“The provision has to be made for them to be supplied and for their equipment to be repaired as they go into action,” he said. “So, we want more action by Iraqi forces towards victory here, and more action will require more logistics, and that will be an important part of this gathering momentum.”
The Kurds are an important part of the anti-Islamic State campaign in the north, and Mr. Carter said the United States would give the Kurdish regional government more than $415 million. A significant portion of that money is expected to be used to pay and feed Kurdish soldiers.
Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said that the money would be paid in monthly installments to cover their expenses. The Kurds, like the Iraqi government, have seen their revenues decline with the price of oil.
Pulling American forces out of Iraq was a crucial plank of Mr. Obama’s campaign platform when he ran for president in 2008. Since the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, he has pledged that there will be no “combat” troops deployed in those countries, leading senior administration and Defense Department officials to sometimes offer conflicting accounts as they have tried to explain the military’s role in the campaign.
Another example of that arose on Monday.
Mr. Carter acknowledged that the advisers would be closer to the front lines. But the top American general in Iraq, Sean MacFarland, said “not necessarily closer to the fight,” in response to a reporter’s question about the new policy.
General MacFarland said the American troops would be “closer to the commanders who are making the critical decisions on the ground.”
This article was written by MICHAEL S SCHMIDT from International New York Times and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.