President Obama on Wednesday ordered up to 450 additional U.S. troops to Iraq to train and assist beleaguered Iraqi security forces in the war against Islamic State militants, escalating the U.S. involvement in the battle against the Sunni extremists.
Obama also directed the Pentagon to expedite delivery of “essential equipment and materiel” to Iraqi forces, including Kurdish Peshmerga troops in northern Iraq and local tribal fighters in eastern Anbar province, according to a statement from White House Secretary Josh Earnest.
Earnest said the new U.S. troops will work primarily at Taqaddum military base in eastern Anbar province. U.S. advisors already are operating from four other bases in the country. They are barred from conducting offensive ground combat operations.
The decision follows a request from Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi, who met with Obama earlier this week at a summit in Germany, as well as recommendations from Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The move will bring the total number of U.S. troops in Iraq to about 3,550.
Carter said the goal of the troop increase is to provide additional operational and planning support for Iraqi forces as they fight to retake the city of Ramadi, which recently fell to the militants, and areas around Fallujah.
"This decision does not represent a change in mission," Carter said in a statement. Rather, he said, it "adds another location" for the U.S. military to support Iraqi troops as they try to reclaim territory from Islamic State forces.
The decision to expand in Anbar province marks a notable shift in tactics and is a sign of the growing complexities of the war.
Until Ramadi fell to the militants, the Pentagon had aimed its efforts at retaking Mosul in northern Iraq, telling reporters earlier this year that an offensive to retake the militants' self-declared capital could begin by May. Those plans have been shelved for now.
The new U.S. troops will be expected to help the Iraqis break Islamic State's grip on Anbar, home to much of the country’s Sunni population.
The fall of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, was a reminder of the larger disintegration of the Iraqi military last June when Islamic State forces seized Mosul and other parts of western and northern Iraq, which they still hold.
Other governments and coalition forces have sent hundreds of additional personnel to train Iraqi brigades, but little progress has been made to dislodge the militants.
The Obama administration is seeking to “leverage all instruments of power to counter ISIL globally and, most importantly, to protect the U.S. homeland,” Earnest said in his statement, using an acronym for Islamic State.
“Thousands of foreign fighters -- including Europeans and some Americans -- have joined ISIL in Syria and Iraq,” Earnest said. “We remain concerned that these trained fighters will return to their home countries and carry out attacks and seek to inspire supporters to conduct attacks at home, and the president directed his national security team to intensify efforts with coalition partners to stem the flow of foreign fighters to and from Iraq and Syria.”