The United States said on Tuesday it was deploying an elite new force of special operations troops to Iraq to conduct raids, free hostages, capture Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) leaders, and carry out "unilateral operations" in neighboring Syria.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter offered few details on the new expeditionary group. It is separate from a previously announced deployment of up to 50 U.S. special operations troops in Syria to coordinate on the ground with U.S.-backed rebels fighting in a civil war raging since 2011.
Carter said the new force will be larger than the one being sent into Syria, but did not specify how many troops it will include. He also did not say where the troops would be based.
A U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the new force would be based in Iraq.
The Pentagon chief said the new deployment of this "specialized expeditionary targeting force" was being carried out in coordination with the government of Iraq and would aid Iraqi government security forces and Kurdish peshmerga forces.
"These special operators will over time be able to conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence, and capture ISIL leaders," Carter told the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee.
"This force will also be in a position to conduct unilateral operations into Syria," he added.
Haider al-Abadi, Iraq's prime minister, said in a statement, "We do not need foreign ground combat forces on Iraqi land."
"The Iraqi government stresses that any military operation or the deployment of any foreign forces — special or not — in any place in Iraq cannot happen without its approval and coordination and full respect of Iraqi sovereignty."
President Barack Obama is under pressure to accelerate a U.S.-led coalition's efforts to combat ISIL, in particular after the Nov. 13 Paris attacks that killed 130 people. Obama has been reluctant to commit large numbers of American ground troops, instead deploying limited numbers of advisors and elite forces.
His critics, including Republicans in Congress, accuse Obama of moving too slowly against ISIL, which controls large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria and claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks.
The top U.S. military officer, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, said the new elite force would greatly accelerate the collection of intelligence, which "will make our operations much more effective."
"We're fighting a campaign across Iraq and Syria so we're going to go where the enemy is, and we're going to conduct operations where they most effectively degrade the capabilities of the enemy," Dunford testified.
Carter said all coalition members must do more. He cited gaps along the Turkish-Syrian border that ISIL uses to smuggle goods and fighters to and from the battlefield.
"Turkey must do more to control its often-porous border," Carter said. "Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states joined the air campaign in the early days, but have since been pre-occupied by the conflict in Yemen."
Polling after the attacks in Paris and Beirut found Americans divided over sending U.S. ground troops to fight ISIL. A Gallup survey said that 47 percent of Americans favored sending more ground troops to Iraq and Syria and 46 percent were opposed.
Al Jazeera with wire services