Marines Form Dominant Presence in Iraq in Fight Against ISIS

The Iraqi 7th Army Division drive their newly acquired light medium tactical vehicles at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, on Feb. 13, 2016. (Photo by Sgt. Joshua E. Powell/U.S. Army)
The Iraqi 7th Army Division drive their newly acquired light medium tactical vehicles at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, on Feb. 13, 2016. (Photo by Sgt. Joshua E. Powell/U.S. Army)

Well before the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit sent a 200-man detachment of Marines into northern Iraq this month to man a new artillery base there, small elements of Marines were on the ground in strategic locations to assist in the fight against Islamic State extremists.

The new temporary detachment of troops brings the total number of Marines in Iraq to about 1,000 out of a total that may top 5,000, according to some media estimates. The Pentagon officially counts only 3,870, but that total excludes hundreds of troops that fall into different categories, including the 200 Marines newly in the country on temporary assignment.

The deployment of the new detachment came to light after Marine Staff Sgt. Louis Cardin, 27, was killed by indirect fire in an Islamic State rocket attack on the new outpost, Fire Base Bell.

Cardin's death underscored the dominant role Marines have taken on the ground in Iraq. As of Tuesday, a company-sized presence of about 150 Marines from the Marines' crisis response force in the Middle East, Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response-Central Command, continues to provide support and security to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, as it has since the rise of the Islamic State threat in the country in 2014.

At Al Asad Air Base west of Baghdad, about 320 Marines from the same task force conduct perimeter and internal security and provide logistical support. Once one of the largest U.S. headquarters bases in Iraq, Al Asad is now used to train Iraqi Army units as they wage the ground fight against militants.

Military photos from earlier this month show Danish soldiers training troops from the 7th Iraqi Army Division how to conduct military operations in urban terrain, including building breaching and small-unit tactics.

Last summer, Marines and special operations forces collaborated to re-open Al-Taqaddum Air Base to the southeast in Anbar province, Iraq. The base, another remnant from Operation Iraqi Freedom, allowed U.S. troops to move into position near the population center of Ramadi, which had been overtaken by Islamic State fighters. Iraqi troops successfully reclaimed Ramadi in December.

At Al-Taqaddum, more than 300 Marines from the crisis response task force provide security and support while a much smaller element of about two dozen Marines works directly with Iraqi military leaders to provide mentorship and advising.

A spokesman for Marine Corps Central Command, Maj. Brad Avots, confirmed that the Marine Corps force strength at these bases remained steady even as the new outpost opened.

The Marine Corps presence in Iraq also extends beyond conventional forces. Earlier this year, a Marine Corps colonel with Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command took charge of the staff element for Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Iraq, marking the first time MARSOC had formed and deployed a full joint special operations task force staff. That task force, which operates out of an undisclosed location in country, oversees special operations troops from every service.

While Cardin's death marks the first combat death for the Marine Corps in the joint fight against the Islamic State and the second U.S. combat death overall, it is not the first casualty the Corps has taken supporting the fight.

Marine Cpl. Jordan Spears, 21, became the first U.S. service member to die in support of the fight on Oct. 1, 2014, when he was lost at sea after bailing out of an MV-22B Osprey that lost power after takeoff from the amphibious assault ship Makin Island.

Later that month, Lance Cpl. Sean Neal, 19, died in Baghdad in a non-combat related incident.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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