US troops have been sharing the Taqaddum military base in Iraq with Iranian-backed Shia militia members, though they're "widely" separated, the Pentagon confirmed Tuesday.
"There are small numbers of Shia militia on Taqaddum," situated between the ISIS strongholds of Fallujah and Ramadi in eastern Anbar province, said Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman. He did not have a count on the Shia militiamen, saying they were in the "small double digits."
The militia members were part of the so-called popular mobilization forces, a conglomeration of Shia groups that have been moving into Anbar as part of the Baghdad government's plan to retake Ramadi, which fell last month to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
The Shias at Taqaddum were acting as "liaisons" with the Iraqi Security Forces, Warren said. Shia units in greater numbers left the base on U.S. demand before American troops began arriving, he said.
The presence of Iran-backed Shia militia members at the base, first reported by Bloomberg View, appeared to conflict with the purpose of the U.S. deployment to the sprawling military outpost near the Euphrates and about 60 miles from Baghdad.
Earlier this month, the White House and the Pentagon announced that up to 450 U.S. troops would be sent to Taqaddum to take on a mission that differed from the basic training for Iraqi recruits that was being done by the U.S. at four other sites.
The U.S. troops at Taqaddum would be advising and assisting the ISF on ousting ISIS from Anbar and also serving as a magnet to draw Sunni tribes in the region into the fight. The tribes fear the presence of Iran-backed fighters.
In remarks to reporters, and in congressional testimony, Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Martin Dempsey said he envisioned Taqaddum as the first in a series of "lily pad" strongpoints in an eventual sweep northward to Mosul.
The preparations to retake Ramadi have been limited to what the Pentagon has called "shaping operations" involving securing road junctions and other terrain around the provincial capital, but additional progress was reported against ISIS in the north and in Syria.
Warren confirmed that forces of the so-called Kurdish YPG (Popular Protection Units) in Syria supported by U.S. airstrikes were pushing south from the Turkish border to within 40-50 miles of the city of Raqaa, considered ISIS' capital.
ISIS has suffered a string of defeats in recent weeks to the YPG, which includes Arab and Christian fighters.
Last week, the border town of Tal Abyad fell to the Kurds, and the BBC and other outlets reported Tuesday that the YPG had taken the town of Ain Issa and its surrounding villages closer to Raqqa.
In the taking of Tal Abyad, the Kurdish forces reported some of the first instances of ISIS fighters fleeing the field. Warren said he could confirm that there have been occasions recently when ISIS fighters "broke under the pressure of coalition airpower and capable ground forces."
--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com