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U.S. may deploy military advisors and attack helicopters to help retake Ramadi

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter testifies during a Senate Armed Services Commitee hearing about the Islamic State and U.S. policy in Iraq and Syria on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter testifies during a Senate Armed Services Commitee hearing about the Islamic State and U.S. policy in Iraq and Syria on Capitol Hill in Washington.

(SAUL LOEB / AFP/Getty Images)
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U.S. troops will advise the Iraqi army and provide Apache attack helicopters to help retake the strategic city of Ramadi from Islamic State militants if the Iraqi government requests it, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told Congress on Wednesday.

The U.S. advisors are not expected to engage in combat but their direct role closer to the front lines of a potential major battle indicates another escalation of U.S. involvement in the conflict in Iraq and Syria.

Iraqi security forces have struggled for seven months to recapture Ramadi, a provincial capital about 60 miles west of Baghdad. Militants who overran the city last spring have planted hundreds of booby traps and installed other defenses that have slowed a direct assault.

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Iraqi forces managed to retake Anbar Operations Center, a military command facility on the northern bank of the Euphrates River, across from the city center.

“There is still tough fighting ahead,” Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

He added that the Pentagon would assist the Iraqi army “with additional unique capabilities to help them finish the job, including attack helicopters and accompanying advisors, if requested by Prime Minister Abadi.”

Carter did not say if U.S. or Iraqi pilots and crews would fly the Apache helicopters, gunships that normally fly close to the ground to support ground troops. They are susceptible to rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire.

Obama has vowed not to reintroduce American ground troops to Iraq, but Carter’s comments suggest U.S. troops may play a more direct role in Iraqi ground and air assaults than in the past.

The 3,500 U.S. troops deployed to Iraq over the last 16 months have been largely limited to headquarters buildings at six training sites. They have played an advisory and backup role, helping to collect intelligence, target airstrikes, train troops and provide equipment and other support to Iraqi and Kurdish forces.

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Retaking Ramadi is expected to require house-to-house urban combat against Sunni militants who have prepared defenses since they took the Sunni-dominated city in May.

In a prime time address to the nation Sunday, Obama repeated his vow not to put U.S. troops into another ground war in the Middle East. He has approved a handful of targeted raids by special operations forces against militant leaders in Iraq and Syria, but the U.S. combat role otherwise is limited chiefly to airstrikes.

But the U.S. military role has steadily grown since the first advisors returned to Iraq in mid-2014.

The Pentagon said last month it would deploy about 100 more special operations troops to Iraq as a “specialized expeditionary targeting force” to conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence and capture Islamic State leaders in Iraq.

The move came weeks after the military said fewer than 50 U.S. special operators would be sent to Kurdish-controlled areas in northeastern Syria to advise vet Syrian and Kurdish rebel groups.

Last month, U.S. military personnel worked with Kurdish guerrilla commanders behind the front lines to retake the city of Sinjar in northwest Iraq. U.S. spotters helped direct airstrikes in support of the Kurdish ground offensive.

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“The president has consistently supported recommendations,” Carter said. “He is prepared for us to bring him more. We will.”

Follow @wjhenn for military and defense info.

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