The Pentagon will send up to 1,500 additional troops to Iraq, more than doubling the size of the U.S. force assisting Iraqi and Kurdish troops battling Islamic State militants, the White House said Friday.
For the first time since U.S. troops returned to Iraq as advisors in August, American military personnel will be posted at Iraqi training bases and headquarters facilities in the country’s north, west and south, not just in the capital, Baghdad, and in Irbil, the Kurdish regional capital, officials said.
The escalation marks a deepening U.S. commitment to the fight against Islamic State by President Obama, who found his national security policies under fierce attack during the midterm election campaign, which ended Tuesday with a Republican sweep of Congress and scores of other offices around the country.
Obama faced pressure not only from Republicans but his own national security staff and Iraqi officials to step up the U.S. role in a war that officials warn is in its early stages and could last years. The lengthy timetable Pentagon officials set out Friday for training Iraqi troops magnifies questions about whether the U.S., even with the additional troops, can achieve the military gains it seeks anytime soon.
The White House said it would ask Congress for $5.6 billion to pay for the expanding military and intelligence operation. Lawmakers said the request would probably be approved in the lame-duck session before Republicans take control of the Senate in January.
The reinforcements could bring the total U.S. force in Iraq to as many as 3,100. Officials said the Americans would be barred from accompanying Iraqi troops on combat operations, in keeping with Obama’s vow not to send ground troops back to Iraq.
But the stepped-up training mission and deployment of U.S. advisors in far-flung rural bases put more Americans at potential risk. Heavily armed Islamic State fighters routed government security forces in Iraq’s west and north this year and captured major cities, oil fields and up to a third of the country’s territory.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said about 630 new troops would be assigned to the expanded “advise and assist” mission. The remainder will be assigned to base security and other support roles.
Some of the U.S. personnel will begin to flow into Iraq as soon as this month, Kirby said.
Other governments and coalition forces will also send more than 700 additional personnel to train the Iraqi brigades on tactical organization, logistics and intelligence matters.
Administration officials said the expanded operation was aimed at better coordinating U.S. and allied airstrikes and gradually making it possible for Iraqi and Kurdish troops to go on the offensive and begin retaking ground now held by Islamic State fighters.
“The mission is not changing,” said a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the condition he not be identified. “Iraqis are the ones who are fighting on the ground in combat. We are keeping the limiting factor on the mission. “
The Pentagon said it would establish two advise-and-assist operations centers outside Baghdad and Irbil, and use several sites to accommodate the training of 12 Iraqi brigades — nine in the Iraqi army and three comprised of Kurdish fighters, known as peshmerga.
A brigade in Iraq can range from fewer than 1,000 troops to more than 3,000.
Specific locations have yet to be chosen, but a senior administration official said the training sites would probably be located where Iraqi security forces want to make progress, such as in Anbar and Diyala provinces and around the cities of Irbil and Baghdad.
“There’s no intent to put the trainers out in the field with these units once they’re trained,” Kirby said. “There will be no reintroduction of U.S. troops in a combat role in Iraq.”
Although U.S. advisors spent years training and equipping the Iraqi army before 2011, only 26 of the Iraqi army’s 50 brigades were able to fight Islamic State. The rest collapsed in combat with the militants, or were tainted by sectarianism and corruption.
Pentagon officials laid out a lengthy timetable Friday for retraining the Iraqi force. They said it would take two to three months to pick and prepare the sites, and another six to seven months for training .
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command, requested the additional forces over the last several weeks to “have more geographic flexibility,” said the U.S. official who briefed reporters.
A key part of the plan calls for training as many as 5,000 Sunni tribal fighters in Anbar province, a mostly Sunni enclave west of Baghdad where Islamic State has besieged the Haditha dam complex and allegedly carried out massacres of Sunni tribes who refused to join them.
The Shiite-dominated Iraqi army is unpopular in Anbar, however, and is unlikely to fight hard to retake Sunni territory or to win support from Sunni residents, who see them as an occupying army, U.S. officials say. But a Sunni militia trained and armed by the U.S. could turn the tide in the province, officials said.
The U.S. also plans to resume training Shiite-dominated army units to retake Shiite areas and major cities occupied by Islamic State, including Mosul. Peshmerga units will focus on pushing back Islamic State militants in the Kurdish region in the north.
But major ground operations will not begin until well into next year, officials said, raising questions about whether airstrikes and limited Iraqi army operations will be enough to keep Islamic State from seizing more territory and threatening Baghdad until then.
Iraq has seen a sharp rise in car bombings and suicide attacks in recent months, a tactic the militants appear to be using to avoid exposing themselves to air attacks by the U.S. and its allies.
U.S. lawmakers in both parties expressed early support for the additional funding. But Republicans indicated they planned to use the proposal to open up a broader debate on the White House strategy.
“I remain concerned that the president’s strategy to defeat ISIL is insufficient,” Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who is leaving office at the end of the year, said in a statement, using a common acronym for Islamic State.