Obama Orders 450 More US Troops to Iraq

Col. Michael Midkiff helps an Iraqi soldier unwrap an M16A2 rifle he received at Camp Taji, Iraq. (Photo by Capt. A. Sean Taylor, 310th A&A, CJTF-OIR Public Affairs)
Col. Michael Midkiff helps an Iraqi soldier unwrap an M16A2 rifle he received at Camp Taji, Iraq. (Photo by Capt. A. Sean Taylor, 310th A&A, CJTF-OIR Public Affairs)

UPDATED at 5 p.m EST

President Obama ordered 450 more U.S. troops into Iraq Wednesday to serve mainly as recruiters of Sunnis in Anbar province and also to advise Iraq's 8th Army Division on retaking Ramadi and other ISIS strongholds.

The deployment would mark the first direct outreach by the U.S. to the Sunni tribes and a deepening of the U.S. involvement in the wider war against ISIS.

A White House statement said Obama acted on the urgent request of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi for additional help and with the backing of Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who last month questioned the will of the Iraqis to fight.

The statement referred to the U.S. troops as "trainers" but a later Pentagon briefing stressed the recruiting and advisory roles they will take on when deployed to the Iraqi military base at Taqaddum in eastern Anbar province, which is located between ISIS-held Ramadi and Fallujah.

"What we're trying to do here is bring the Sunnis into the fold, bring them into the tent," said Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.

A few of the new troops will come from U.S. units already in Iraq but the majority will come from stateside units that have yet to be identified, Warren said. The first elements of the deployment were expected to be operating out of Taqaddum within six to eight weeks.

Warren said the mission of the new troops was two-fold and would not involve the six-weeks of basic training in marksmanship and other skills that have been going on at four other U.S. sites for Iraqi recruits.

The plan was that the U.S. troops at Taqaddum would become a recruiting magnet for Sunni tribal fighters who have thus far shunned involvement with the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF).

Others from the 450-member force would advise the 8th Division on tactics, intelligence and logistics to ready them for a major push to oust ISIS from Anbar, Warren said. Units of the 8th Division were among those which fled Ramadi last month under assault from ISIS.

Republican leaders in Congress welcomed Obama's deployment of more troops while renewing complaints about the overall U.S. strategy.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the deployment responds to a real need from our Sunni Arab partners in Anbar Province who are trying to resist" the advance of ISIS.

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"At the same time, I remain deeply concerned that this new deployment is disconnected from any coherent strategy to defeat" the insurgents, said McCain, who has advocated moving U.S. troops closer to the front lines to serve as forward air controllers and give tactical advice to Iraqi ground troops.

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Tex., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, had a similar view on the White House announcement.

"The need for additional U.S. forces to help our Iraqi allies defeat ISIL has been apparent for some time," Thornberry said. "As far as it goes, I support this effort.  However, disconnected from a broader coherent strategy, it is not likely to be any more successful than our previous efforts. "

The U.S. currently has trainers and advisors in Iraq at four sites – al-Asad to the west of Ramadi, Besmaya south of Baghdad, Taji north of Baghdad, and Irbil in the northern Kurdish sector.

A White House statement said that "These new advisors will work to build capacity of Iraqi forces, including local tribal fighters, to improve their ability to plan, lead, and conduct operations against ISIL (another term for ISIS) in eastern Anbar under the command of the Prime Minister."

The statement and a followup conference call with White House and Defense Department officials stressed that the additional troops will deploy under Obama's current rules of engagement barring a combat role.

However, "We'll be doing force protection for the site" at Taqaddum, which is positioned between Ramadi and ISIS-held Fallujah to the east, said Elissa Slotkin, the assistant secretary of Defense for security affairs.

"The President recognizes that whenever you deploy like this there is inherent risk," Slotkin said. "Of course, there's always the risk wherever you are in Iraq that you could be hit by indirect fire."

Slotkin said the additional 450 troops would bring the total number of trainers and advisers in Iraq up to 3,550, and she did not rule out that more troops might be sent. "We think we have the right numbers," but "we'll always re-look those numbers" to adjust to the progress of the campaign against ISIS.

Obama and Pentagon officials said earlier this week that the training program has been hampered by the lack of recruits supplied by the Iraqis. T+he training site at al-Asad reportedly has been idle in recent weeks for lack of recruits to train.

Boosting the number of recruits was one of the goals of putting a new training site at Taqaddaum, said Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes. Through a greater presence in Anbar, "we're hoping to get more of those Sunni tribes invested" in the fight against ISIS and expand the recruiting base, Rhodes said.

The dispatch of the additional troops followed on Obama's talks with Abadi earlier this week on the sidelines of the G-7 economic summit in Germany. Obama said after the meeting that the U.S. still lacked a "complete strategy" for training the Iraqi Security Force (ISF).

Obama "hasn't ruled out any additional steps" to support the ISF but currently is not considering allowing U.S. troops to act on the front lines as Joint Terminal Attack Controllers to guide airstrikes, Rhodes said.

Before the troop announcement, Obama met at the White House with Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of U.S. Central Command, and later held a closed meeting with Carter.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the U.S. was involved in a long-term battle against ISIS and predicted that U.S. troops would still be in Iraq shoring up the government when Obama leaves office in January 2017.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com

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