More U.S. forces are headed to Iraq.
President Obama has authorized the deployment of up to 1,500 additional troops to help train, advise and assist Iraqi government and Kurdish peshmerga forces in their fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the Pentagon announced Friday. Deploying all 1,500 troops would nearly double the total U.S. military presence in Iraq.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said the added troops would serve in a “non-combat role, to expand our advise and assist mission and initiate a comprehensive training effort for Iraqi forces.”
The U.S. will establish training centers across Iraq, Kirby said, to prepare Iraqi and Kurdish forces that currently serve in lieu of American boots on the ground in the battle against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The training sites would be defended by U.S. “force protection capabilities,” however, suggesting that American troops could see combat as part of a defensive military role.
Senior administration officials say the expanding military operation is not mission creep, since the overall mission has not changed. U.S. forces will continue to serve in a support role, they say, although they declined to put a ceiling on the number of troops that will be deployed.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Obama authorized the troop increase after the Iraqi government requested the additional forces, a recommendation seconded by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. “This mission will be undertaken in coordination with multiple coalition partners and will be funded through the request for an Iraq Train and Equip fund that the Administration will submit to Congress,” Earnest said.
The latest increase in troop levels represents a further escalation for the U.S.-led military campaign in Iraq, which began in August with targeted airstrikes to "degrade and destroy" ISIS forces. Obama withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, but recommitted the military to the country after the Islamic militants conquered large swaths of territory across Iraq and Syria, threatening to destabilize the region. In September, American-led military operations expanded to include airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria.
Obama said Wednesday in a post-election press conference that the White House has reached out to Congress on new authorization for the fight against ISIS. A White House press release Friday said the administration would also be asking Congress for an additional $5.6 billion to support its anti-ISIS strategy, including the expansion of efforts to train Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
“We now have a different type of enemy. The strategy is different. How we partner with Iraq and other Gulf countries and the international coalition -- that has to be structured differently. So it makes sense for us to make sure that the authorization from Congress reflects what we perceive to be not just our strategy over the next two or three months, but our strategy going forward,” Obama said.
He added: “And it will be a process of listening to members of Congress, as well as us presenting what we think needs to be the set of authorities that we have. And I’m confident we're going to be able to get that done. And that may just be a process of us getting it started now. It may carry over into the next Congress.”