Joint Chiefs Chairman Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford said Friday that he expected more U.S. troops would be sent to Iraq in the coming weeks to support an offensive to retake the ISIS stronghold in Mosul.
Dunford said that he and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter "both believe that there will be an increase in U.S. forces in Iraq in coming weeks, but that decision hasn't been made" yet by President Barack Obama.
"We have a series of recommendations that we will be discussing with the president in the coming weeks to further enable our support for the Iraqi Security Forces," the chairman said.
Dunford did not say how many additional troops would be deployed, and he refused to say how many were now in Iraq beyond stating that the number currently exceeded the authorized level of 3,870 approved by Obama and agreed to by the Baghdad government.
However, Dunford denied published reports that the number of U.S. troops now in Iraq exceeded 5,000. He echoed previous remarks by defense officials who said that troop levels routinely went above the authorized 3,870 as troop rotations overlapped and troops were sent to Iraq temporarily on special assignments.
Dunford cited the deployment into Iraq of about 200 Marines from an artillery battery of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, based aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge as an example of the type of support the Iraqi Security Forces will need to retake Mosul in northwestern Iraq.
The presence of the Marines and four 155mm howitzers at a forward outpost they named Firebase Bell near Makhmour, a projected staging area for the Mosul offensive about 60 miles southeast of the city, only became known when Marine Staff Sgt. Louis F. Cardin, 27, of Temecula, California, was killed there last Saturday by ISIS rocket fire.
The Marines reportedly fired the howitzers Thursday in support of Iraqi troops involved in a clearing operation of several areas near Makhmour but Dunford repeatedly denied that the Marines and other additional troops he was seeking to deploy would be involved in ground combat and thus mark a new stage in the U.S. effort to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
"No, it's not," he said of ground combat, noting that U.S. troops at al-Asad airbase in southern Anbar province and at other U.S. bases had fired artillery and the HIMARS rocket systems in support of the Iraqi troops.
"I just cannot see this as being inconsistent with what we've been doing for the last couple of months," he added. "To me there's no inconsistency to what this (Marine) artillery unit did and what our aviation forces do every day."
However, the U.S. artillery units were inside large and well-secured Iraqi bases while the 26th MEU Marines were at a base of their own apart from the Iraqi forces and located at what Dunford described as the "Forward Line of Troops," or FLOT.
On Monday, Army Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, said of Firebase Bell, "This is the first time we've established a spot that is only American."
Any additional troops sent to Iraq would be "focused on what is it we need to do to maintain momentum in the campaign and what specifically do we need to do to enable operations in Mosul," Dunford said.
The discussion of Firebase Bell and the possibility of additional troop deployments dominated the news conference called by Dunford and Carter to announce that U.S. forces this month killed the ISIS "finance minister" who was believed to be second to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in the terror group's chain of command.
The death of Haji Imam, whose real name was believed to be Abd al-Rahman Muhammad Mustafa al-Qaduli, gave evidence that "we are systematically eliminating ISIL's cabinet," Carter said, using another acronym for ISIS.
Carter declined to say whether Haji Imam was killed in Iraq or Syria, or whether the operation was an air strike or a Special Forces raid, but said "we've now taken out the leader who oversees the funding."
The secretary also confirmed that a separate action by U.S. forces earlier this month had killed Omar al-Shishani, also known as "Omar the Chechen," who was believed to be the ISIS' war minister.
"Striking leadership is necessary," he said, "but as you know it's far from sufficient" to the ultimate defeat of ISIS.
"As you know leaders can be replaced. These leaders have been around for a long time -- they are senior and experienced and eliminating them is an important objective and result. They will be replaced and we will continue to go after their leadership," Carter said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.