The Obama administration announced Wednesday that it will soon send 450 additional U.S. troops to Iraq to establish an “advise and assist” mission in Anbar province, where ISIL fighers scored a recent victory by capturing the strategically important city of Ramadi.
Under the plan, the additional American service personnel will offer assistance to Iraqis and conduct outreach to Sunni tribes, according to the Pentagon. U.S. officials have said repeatedly that getting other Sunnis more deeply involved in the war is critical to ousting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — a Sunni group — from Anbar.
The White House said President Barack Obama made the decision to send more troops at the request of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and on the basis of advice from Pentagon leaders. The mission is due to began in six to eight weeks. The Pentagon said Wednesday that fewer than a quarter of the additional troops would be advisers and that the rest will include "force protection" personnel.
The decision is not a shift in U.S. strategy but is aimed at helping Iraq retake the provincial capital, Ramadi — and eventually blunting ISIL’s battlefield momentum — according to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey.
Speaking in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Dempsey said there would be no radical change to the U.S. approach in Iraq. Rather, it is a recognition that the effort has been too slow or has allowed setbacks where “certain units have not stood and fought," he said.
Sectarian conflict has stalked Iraq since the outbreak of civil war in 2006. About 60 percent of Iraqis are Shia, but Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, shut them out of the political power during his rule. Sunnis make up most of the remainder of Iraq's population, alongside other religious minority groups.
Since the 2011 departure of American combat forces from Iraq, Iraqi's resentments have reversed, with Sunnis saying they feel ill-treated and politically marginalized by the central government, which has close ties to Iran, where Shias rule.
During assaults against ISIL during the spring, the Iraqi government employed Shia militia groups, like Hezbollah and the Badr Brigade, to help battle the rebel group. Bringing Sunnis into the fold would mean the Iraqi forces would be fighting ISIL without sectarian motivations, which have hobbled efforts to forge a unity government in Baghdad.
There remains, however, the larger question of whether the Iraqi government will make the troop commitments necessary to oust ISIL from Ramadi, which the fighters captured last month, and Fallujah, which they have held for more than a year. Up till now, Iraqi officials have chosen to deploy most U.S.-trained Iraqi troops in defensive formations around Baghdad.
Obama has ruled out sending U.S. ground combat forces to Iraq. There now are slightly fewer than 3,100 U.S. troops there in training, advising, security and other support roles. The U.S. is flying bombing missions as well as aerial reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering missions to degrade ISIL's forces while counting on Iraqi ground troops to retake lost territory.
A U.S. official said Wednesday that an extra U.S. facility will be at Al-Taqqadum, a desert air base that was a U.S. military hub during the war from 2003 to 2011. Establishing the camp will require 400 to 500 U.S. troops, including logisticians and security personnel, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because a final administration decision had not been announced.
Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said that the U.S. advisors at Al-Taqqadum would be advising at the brigade level and higher.
The U.S. is already training Iraqi troops at four sites: two in the vicinity of Baghdad, one at Al-Asad air base in Anbar and one near Erbil in northern Iraq.
The addition of one site — which the Pentagon stressed would not be a training facility — is a modest change to the existing U.S. approach in Iraq. It was unclear Wednesday how many more Iraqi troops could be added to the fight against ISIL in coming months by opening one additional facility.
The new plan is not likely to include the deployment of U.S. forces closer to the front lines to call in airstrikes or advise Iraqi units in battle, officials said. One official, however, said the adjustment may include a plan for expediting the delivery of arms and military equipment to some elements of the Iraqi military.
Dempsey said Tuesday that he has recommended changes to Obama, but he offered no assessment of when decisions would be made and announced. He suggested the president was considering a number of questions, including what adjustments to U.S. military activities in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world might be needed if the U.S. does more in Iraq.
Obama said Monday that the U.S. still lacks a "complete strategy" for training Iraqi forces. He urged Iraq's government to allow more of the nation's Sunnis to join the campaign against ISIL.
Dempsey said Obama recently asked his national security team to examine the train-and-equip program and determine ways to make it more effective. Critics have questioned the U.S. approach, and even Defense Secretary Ash Carter has raised doubts by saying the collapse of Iraqi forces in Ramadi last month suggested the Iraqis lack the "will to fight."
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press