The Obama administration is considering training Iraqis to handle ground control for airstrikes, a move that would significantly expand their role in the fight against the militant group Islamic State, a senior administration official said Thursday.
The administration has been reluctant to put U.S. special forces at risk by deploying them on the ground in Iraq to call in strikes against targets associated with Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. At the same time, officials have been reluctant to rely on the Iraqis for a job that requires lengthy training.
But the absence of what the military calls joint terminal attack controllers has lengthened the time it takes to direct airstrikes, raising the risks for Iraqi forces on the ground.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi complained during his visit to Washington last week about delays in launching strikes and asked for American help in reducing the lag time.
"We're discussing this with them," said the U.S. official, who declined to be identified in a meeting with reporters, under ground rules set by the State Department.
Ground controllers are likely to be valuable in the close-quarter fights U.S. officials expect to have with Islamic State in Iraq's cities. U.S. and Iraqi forces are now preparing for what is expected to be a tough battle for Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, which is in the militant group's control.
The official said U.S. troops have worked with the Iraqi special forces for many years. U.S. military officials would still be closely involved in directing any airstrikes, the official noted.
Even so, a delegation of responsibility to Iraqis for guiding the strikes could involve risks, analysts say. Iraqi military units could, for example, call in strikes against local rivals.
The U.S. has carried out 3,000 airstrikes in Iraq since September, when it joined forces with Iraq in response to Islamic State's seizure of large swaths of territory in Syria and western and northern Iraq.
The administration official praised Abadi's conduct of the war. The prime minister had strengthened his control over Iraqi forces, while increasing cooperation with Sunni leaders in Anbar province and Kurdish leaders in the north, the official said.
"We're on the same page on the sequence of events over the next four to six months," the official added.
He said he agreed with Abadi's estimate that about 100 Iranian military advisors are in Iraq.
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