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After Marine Death, House Condemns 'Artificial' Cap on Troops in Iraq

In this March 18, 2015, file photo, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington.  (AP Photo/Molly Riley, File)
In this March 18, 2015, file photo, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Molly Riley, File)

WASHINGTON -- The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said the Obama administration's "artificial" cap on the number of troops in Iraq might be increasing danger for U.S. forces there.

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said the military is sidestepping the publicly announced cap by rotating in temporary troops who are less experienced in the fight against the Islamic State group.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who testified to the House on Tuesday, denied the military is cutting any corners and said all troops in Iraq are properly trained.

The Pentagon refused Monday to release the total number of service members deployed to Iraq following the death during the weekend of Marine Staff Sgt. Louis F. Cardin at a newly created U.S. artillery base near Mosul. The number of troops in Iraq is limited to 3,870 unless President Barack Obama authorizes an increase, though troops rotated in for short periods are not counted in that total.

"The argument is that if you are rotating people in every 30 days or whatever it is to keep below the troop caps then the people who are rotating in are not going to have time to get acclimated to the environment and may be at increased risk," Thornberry said.

As the U.S. ramps up operations in Iraq, the administration's caps also might be limiting the number of troops dedicated to protecting servicemembers who are deployed, Thornberry said.

"To me, it makes no sense to put artificial troop caps in any place," he said. "The question is, what does it take to do the mission?"

Obama had touted an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but the rise of the Islamic State and resurgent violence has scuttled those plans. Still, the president has hewn to strict caps on the number of servicemembers deployed -- at least publicly -- to avoid a slide back into the large-scale military operations of the last decade.

Cardin, 27, was killed and several fellow Marines were injured Saturday when a squad-sized Islamic State force waged a mortar attack on their artillery base. The Marines were manning four 155mm Howitzer cannons that have been set up in what the military called a defensive role to protect U.S. advisers and Iraqi forces as they prepare to retake the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul.

"Everybody that is in Iraq is properly trained for the mission, including the Marines there. Force protection, that was in fact their mission," Carter said. "What they were doing was helping to protect the staging area near Makhmour where we are and our coalition partners are helping the Iraqi security forces."

Iraqi army brigades staging there will play the lead role in retaking Mosul, which fell dramatically to the Islamic State forces that poured over the Syria border in 2014 and remains the biggest challenge for the U.S.-led war effort.

Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated during his House testimony Tuesday that the president's military advisers believe more troops are needed in the fight.

"We are in the process right now of bringing forward recommendations for increased capability as a result of operations in Mosul, Raqqa and elsewhere so we can maintain and accelerate the campaign," Dunford said.

The general said he has been consulting with Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, commander of Operation Inherent Resolve, and his commanders on the ground regularly about what is needed.

During the past several months, the president has not denied any requests, Dunford said.

"To your question of have we compromised force protection or other critical capabilities as a result of the force cap? I can tell you we haven't done that," he said.

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