WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama authorized a broad expansion on Friday of the U.S. military mission in Iraq that will boost the total number of American troops there to about 3,100 and spread advisory teams and trainers to the north and west where fighting with Islamic State militants has been fierce.
The president’s decision to escalate the U.S. effort in Iraq comes just three days after a bruising American election and amid persistent arguments that more U.S. troops are needed to bolster the struggling Iraqi forces. In particular, there have been calls to send troops to the western Anbar province, where extremists have been slaughtering men, women and children.
Obama authorized the Pentagon to send 1,500 troops to Iraq in addition to the 1,600 previously allowed. He also is asking Congress for more than $5 billion to fund the fight. Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said the military will set up several training sites across Iraq to instruct 12 Iraqi brigades, and also establish two operations centres where small advisory teams can work with Iraqi forces at the headquarters and brigade levels.
A senior military official said one of those centres will be in Anbar Province, and that it is likely that the bulk of the additional troops will be in Iraq by the end of the year. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.
Kirby said the new changes were based on a request from the Iraqi officials, the assessment of military commanders on the progress that Iraq’s military has made in the fight and as part of a campaign plan “to defend key areas and go on the offensive against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” another name for IS.
The U.S. troops will not be in combat roles but will do the training in protected locations around the country. Until now, U.S. troops have largely been confined to Baghdad and Irbil, including two operations centres in those cities.
The funding announcement is part of a $5.6 billion request to Congress and came just after Obama met with congressional leaders Friday. That funding would cover the overseas military operations and other military equipment and requirements to combat the Islamic State group militants, who have seized control of large swaths of Iraq and Syria.
The U.S. has been launching airstrikes on Islamic State group militants and facilities in Iraq and Syria for weeks, as part of an effort to give Iraqi forces the time and space to mount a more effective offensive. Early on, the Islamic State group gained ground across Iraq, as local Iraqi units threw down their weapons and fled or joined the insurgents.
Lately, however, with the aid of the U.S. strikes, IS has suffered a number of losses in Iraq, where it is fighting government forces, peshmerga and Shiite militias aided by Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah group.
Last week, Iraqi forces recaptured the town of Jurf al-Sakher. IS also lost Rabia, Mahmoudiyah and Zumar, a string of towns near the Syrian border, last month. Besieged Iraqi troops have also managed to maintain control of Iraq’s largest oil refinery outside the town of Beiji north of Baghdad, despite numerous attempts by the Islamic State group to capture it.
The $5.6 billion request was expected to be a top item on the agenda of Friday’s meeting between Obama and congressional leaders. Official details are expected to be delivered to Capitol Hill next week.
The funding comes on top of an earlier $58.6 billion request to cover overseas military operations in the war on terror. It’s expected to be addressed in the upcoming lame duck session of Congress. Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Friday that he has “long been concerned that the president has underfunded our combat operations against terrorists.”
He said he will give the funding request fair consideration, but added, “I remain concerned that the president’s strategy to defeat ISIL is insufficient. I would urge the president to reconsider his strategy and clearly explain how this additional funding supports a new direction. Such clarity is more likely to find swift congressional approval.”
ISIL is one of several acronyms for the Islamic State.