U.S. troops have gone forward with Iraqi forces for the first time on the battalion level in a prelude to the expected assignment of more troops closer to the front lines in the effort to retake Mosul, a U.S. military spokesman said Wednesday.
The small team of about 10 U.S. engineers advised the Iraqis on building a floating bridge across the Tigris about 40 miles southeast of Mosul to connect the forward base at Makhmour to the Qayyarah West airstrip newly wrested from ISIS.
The deployment occurred around July 20, and the engineers have since withdrawn to Makhmour, said Army Col. Chris Garver, spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve.
U.S. advisers had previously been limited to the division level, and the bridge-building mission was the "first U.S. advise and assist mission at lower level with the Iraqi army," Garver said in a briefing to the Pentagon from Baghdad.
The engineers worked with the Iraqis for a few hours each day before returning to Makhmour, Garver said. "It was short-duration, high-payoff," he said of the engineers' work in building the bridge expected to be a key supply route for the push on Mosul, the last main stronghold in Iraq for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
The bridge was the second built by the Iraqi Security Forces with the aid of U.S. engineers. The first was a pontoon bridge over a tributary of the Euphrates River in Anbar province that was vital to the successful effort to retake Ramadi last December.
Garver said the U.S. has built an artificial lake at the al-Tanf base in Anbar province to train the Iraqis in bridge building, which will be necessary to gain entry to Mosul.
President Obama last month authorized sending an additional 560 U.S. troops to Iraq, with most of them to be deployed to Qayyarah West, which Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has described as a "springboard" for the Mosul offensive. Garver said the troops have yet to arrive.
Carter was in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, on Wednesday to meet with Army Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend and troops of his XVIII Airborne Corps on the push to retake Mosul and Raqqa, the self-proclaimed ISIS capital in Syria, and the aftermath of those campaigns.
Townsend, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, has been chosen to replace Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland later this summer as commander of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria. The headquarters group from XVIII Corps will replace MacFarland's III Corps.
"We've got big shoes to fill, but we're ready to do it," Townsend said. Carter called Townsend and his troops "more than up to the task."
"It ain't gonna be over," Carter said, when Mosul and Raqqa fall in what he has repeatedly called an "accelerated campaign" to retake the two cities. He warned that ISIS would remain a potent threat and said that one of Townsend's main tasks would be overseeing the stabilization of territory retaken from ISIS.
"Even when we win this fight," the stabilization work must continue "so the gains are irreversible," Carter said. Political and economic progress "cannot be allowed to lag behind our military progress," he said.
Along those lines, Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry met last week with the defense and foreign ministers of more than 60 nations in the anti-ISIS coalition on the way forward after Raqqa and Mosul. Kerry said the ministers had pledged about $2.6 billion toward Iraq reconstruction efforts.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.