The Cable

White House Decides to Double the Number of U.S. Troops in Iraq

This story has been updated. President Barack Obama authorized the Pentagon to double the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, bringing the number to 3,100, as the White House continues to take steps that it had wished to avoid in its escalating fight against the Islamic State. The Pentagon announced Friday that it had received ...

HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP/Getty Images
HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP/Getty Images

This story has been updated.

President Barack Obama authorized the Pentagon to double the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, bringing the number to 3,100, as the White House continues to take steps that it had wished to avoid in its escalating fight against the Islamic State.

The Pentagon announced Friday that it had received authorization from Obama to send an additional 1,500 U.S. personnel to Iraq over the coming months. Up until now the cap had been set at 1,600 U.S. troops, with roughly 1,400 already deployed, advising and assisting Iraqi security forces in their fight to halt the advances of the Islamic State, which controls a large portion of the country and has been expanding its control over the strategically vital Anbar province. The U.S. troops are also helping the Iraqis plan a major counteroffensive to reclaim lost territory that is planned for sometime next year.

The new troops will be placed under the same noncombat restriction as those already deployed, but they will be moved closer to the front lines. It will be several weeks before the first of the new troops arrive, a military official told reporters at the Pentagon.

To pay for the expanded mission against the Islamic State, the White House announced Friday that it is asking Congress for an additional $5.6 billion in supplemental funding for 2015. Before any troops are able to deploy, Congress needs to pass this new funding request, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters Friday. 

The United States is also asking the Iraqi government to contribute to the effort, as well as other coalition members, Kirby said. 

The announcement of the new deployments came one day after the disclosure of a secret letter President Barack Obama sent Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that said the continued expansion of the Islamic State posed a threat to both the United States and Iran and said the two countries were battling a common enemy.

Taken together, the letter and the new troop deployments show the degree to which the administration is being forced to work with Iran to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and to forge a de facto alliance with Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, who is battling the Islamic State on the ground while the United States bombs the militants from the air.

The troop question is a politically dicey one for the White House, which held off on sending even small numbers of U.S. forces to Iraq until the Islamic State had conquered Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, and Fallujah, a onetime insurgent stronghold that U.S. Marines waged two bloody wars to clear. The initial deployment of 275 troops has been steadily climbing in the months since they first arrived in Iraq in June.

"We needed to get a better handle on the Iraqi security forces and we needed to get a better intelligence picture" of the Islamic State, a senior administration official told reporters on a conference call Friday. "The numbers are borne out of that analysis."

Asked if the steady addition of troops constitutes mission creep, one senior administration official said that although the number of troops has increased, the mission has remained the same.

"Even with the additional personnel, the mission is not changing," the administration official said. "The mission continues to be one of training, advising, and equipping Iraqis and it’s the Iraqis who are fighting on the ground in combat." 

The official also drew a contrast between the current approach and that of President George W. Bush’s administration. "This is a different model and approach to the previous efforts in Iraq when we had large-scale ground forces in combat."  

According to a senior administration official, 630 of the new troops will be performing an advise-and-assist mission — similar to the one being conducted today — primarily in Anbar in the west of the country.

The Pentagon plans to establish "two expeditionary advise and assist operations centers, in locations outside of Baghdad and Erbil," to provide support for the Iraqis at the brigade headquarters level and above.

The remaining 870 troops will be doing a more traditional training mission at locations across the country, the senior administration official said.

Both missions will move U.S. troops out of Iraq’s major cities and closer to where battles are currently being waged and where a likely counteroffensive would begin.  

That push would be led by the 12 brigades — nine Iraqi army and three Kurdish Peshmerga — that will be trained by the new American troops at sites in northern, western, and southern Iraq.

"Coalition partners will join U.S. personnel at these locations to help build Iraqi capacity and capability," Kirby said in a statement.

For example, Denmark has agreed to send 120 trainers, Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon. 

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel "made this recommendation to President Obama based on the request of the Government of Iraq, U.S. Central Command’s assessment of Iraqi units, the progress Iraqi security forces have made in the field, and in concert with the development of a coalition campaign plan to defend key areas and go on the offensive against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant," Kirby said.

Hagel’s recommendation went to the White House this week, he added. 

The United States intends to help the Sunni Arab tribes that are starting to oppose the Islamic State, another administration official said. "There’s a tangible and concrete plan to train and equip 5,000 tribesmen" in the Sunni stronghold of Anbar province, the official said. "We are going to do all we can to help" the tribes that want to get Islamic State "out of their communities." 

Up until now, the Pentagon had said it didn’t need more troops, but had made clear that it wouldn’t hesitate to ask for more if needed.

On Thursday, speaking at the Atlantic Council in Washington, Centcom Commander Gen. Lloyd Austin said, "If I think we need to do more things, or if we need better capability I won’t hesitate to make that recommendation to my boss. It’s what military leadership should do."

Gopal Ratnam contributed to this report. 

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. @K8brannen

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