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Obama sends 1,500 more troops to join war on ISIL

Washington is feeling more confident in its allies in Iraq and plans to send more troops and cash.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby announces that the US is to deploy to Iraq up to 1,500 additional troops over the coming months.   Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP Photo
Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby announces that the US is to deploy to Iraq up to 1,500 additional troops over the coming months. Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP Photo

NEW YORK // Barack Obama has deepened Washington’s involvement in the fight against ISIL by doubling the number of US troops training and advising Iraqi forces.

The plans, announced on Friday, will see US troops sent for the first time in the current conflict to the front lines of Anbar province where Sunni tribes have called for greater support against the extremists.

US administration officials insisted the increase in US forces on the ground in Iraq by an additional 1,500 troops was not a sign of mission creep, and that the personnel would still be limited to assisting, not fighting.

“US troops will not be in combat, but they will be better positioned to support Iraqi security forces as they take the fight” to ISIL, said White House press secretary Josh Earnest.

The deployment, which could take place this month and brings the total number of US forces in Iraq to around 3,100, will involve two main tasks.

About 630 troops will advise Iraqi forces at two “expeditionary advise and assist operation centers”, one in the Sunni-majority Anbar province, most of which has been under ISIL control since January, and another in Baghdad province, according to Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby.

The remaining US troops will set up several sites across Iraq to train nine Iraqi brigades that are expected to include Sunni National Guard forces, and three Kurdish peshmerga brigades.

Adm Kirby said the newly-trained Iraqi forces would be ready for combat in around 10 months.

Both US military commanders and the Iraqi government have been asking for an increase in US forces to help bolster Iraqi and peshmerga units who have been able to slow ISIL’s advance towards Baghdad but have struggled to push them back.

With the help of US-led coalition airstrikes against ISIL positions in Iraq, Shiite militias aided by Iranian advisers, Iraqi troops and peshmerga fighters have retaken a number of towns near the Syrian border and blunted the extremist group’s advance, but still face stiff resistance in Anbar and other Sunni-majority areas.

It is “the kind of sure sign of American resolve that is needed to keep the Iraqis moving forward”, Michael O’Hanlon, a national security analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told Bloomberg. “They’ve been stuck a bit since the summer in making any real headway on rebuilding their army, creating their new national guard, and otherwise preparing to take back” territory.

The White House has conditioned US military assistance on steps taken by Baghdad to repair its relations with Iraq’s Sunni minority who were marginalised under the previous prime minister, and officials say that the new premier, Haider Al Abadi, has made significant strides towards more inclusiveness.

“This government has a new national vision for how to govern the country. It’s significantly different from the previous government’s vision of how to govern the country,” said an anonymous senior administration official.

“And so we’re helping them implement that vision.”

The troops will be used to help “defend key areas” and also be part of a campaign likely to begin in the spring to “go on the offensive against [ISIL]”, Adm Kirby said.

“They have demonstrated the willingness and the skill to go after” ISIL, Adm Kirby said. “So they’ve reached a point where they need additional help and guidance, particularly in areas like Anbar.”

US officials are eager to build up Sunni forces in Iraq and some Sunni tribes in Anbar have stood up to ISIL. But lacking Iraqi or US support, they have mostly been brutally put down by the extremists.

A plan to arm 5,000 tribesmen in Anbar has been discussed by Baghdad, though many in the province remain sceptical that the new prime minister, himself a Shiite from the Shiite Islamist party of his predecessor, is committed to empowering them.

The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Martin Dempsey, said last week that the US would train Sunni forces but only after Baghdad sent them weapons.

The senior administration official said that this is now happening and the US will now help in “developing that capacity”, adding, “there’s an awful lot going on with the tribes and I think you’ll see more over the coming weeks”.

The emerging strategy to train and arm Sunni tribal forces in Anbar stands in stark contrast to the still dormant plan to train and equip a similar force in Syria to take on ISIL, which has been given no start date.

The White House is asking congress to approve $5.6 billion (Dh20.1 billion) to fund the expanded mission against ISIL, including $1.6bn to train and equip Iraqi forces, during the lame-duck session before the new year.

While members of congress are pressing the administration for more details on how the funds will be used in the war against ISIL, the mission has bipartisan support and legislators are expected to pass a defence spending bill before the current funds run out on December 11.

Mr Obama briefed senior members of congress from both parties at the White House on Friday, three days after midterm elections saw Republicans take control of both chambers of congress for the first time in eight years.

The move to increase the US presence in Iraq three years after Mr Obama ended Washington’s military role in the country will likely add impetus to a growing debate in congress over the administration’s legal authorities to conduct the new ISIL war.

So far, it has relied on the original authorisation passed in 2001 after the September 11 attacks and is specific to Al Qaeda and allied groups. Both congress and Mr Obama have said that a new law may be necessary to justify the fight against ISIL, which broke from Al Qaeda and has been fighting its affiliate in Syria.

The White House has sought for some time to leave in place for future administrations a new law that frames a new approach to a long-term global war on terror, one that it hopes will not see major ground deployments and rely instead on training local allies and deploying US special forces and drones against a range of militant groups.

tkhan@thenational.ae

Updated: November 8, 2014 04:00 AM

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