FORT IRWIN, Calif. -- The U.S. has already sent special operations forces into Iraq's volatile Anbar province to begin the process of training Iraqi troops to fight the Islamic State, according to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.
On Nov. 7, the White House announced that up to an additional 1,500 troops would deploy to Iraq. At the time, the Pentagon said that about 870 of those would be involved in training nine Iraqi security forces and three Kurdish peshmerga brigades.
Those forces weren't expected to start arriving until the end of this month, and the training effort wasn't expected to get up and running for several months. But the Defense Department chose to speed things up.
"We ... have agreed with Gen. Austin's recommendation to take some of the special operations forces that he has in Iraq [serving as advisers] and give them some early missions working with Iraqi security forces in al-Anbar Province just to ... accelerate the mission of preparing for training and equipping and the things that we need to do to start setting that up," Hagel told reporters traveling with him to Fort Irwin, Calif, on Sunday, referring to Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command.
He said they arrived in Anbar "in the last couple of days," but did not provide details about how many were there or where they were located.
A defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said approximately 50 special operators are at al-Asad air base in Anbar, where they are laying the ground work for the training effort.
Anbar is a hotly contested area between the Iraqi security forces and the Islamic State and the location of intense fighting.
Obama administration officials have repeatedly stressed that U.S. troops in Iraq will be engaged only in a train, advise and assist role, and will not be engaged in direct combat.
At a town hall meeting with troops at Fort Irwin, a soldier asked Hagel if he was going to send a large U.S. invasion force to take on the Islamic State.
"This has to be an Iraqi effort," Hagel replied. "It is their country. They have to do this themselves."
But Gen. Martin Dempsey, the nation's top military officer, recently said the administration was "certainly considering" sending a limited number of American ground forces to fight alongside Iraqi troops as they launch complex missions to regain territory lost to Islamic State militants.
Hagel's remarks about the advisers in Anbar came on the same day that the U.S. government confirmed that Peter Kassig -- a former Army Ranger who served in Iraq -- had been beheaded by the Islamic State. The killing appeared on an Internet video.
Kassig, also known as Abdul-Rahman, became a humanitarian aid worker and was kidnapped by the militant group while he was working in Syria.
In a statement, Hagel offered his condolences and praised Kassig.
"Like his fellow veterans of the 9/11 generation, his strong desire to continue making a difference in the world after serving in uniform -- to continue leading a life of purpose -- is an inspiration to us all. His brutal murder is one more reminder of ISIL's ruthless barbarity," Hagel said, using an acronym to refer to the Islamic State. "There is no starker contrast between the inhumanity of ISIL and the bright and generous spirit of the young man they murdered."