The Complex

U.S. Troops Begin Controversial New Mission in Iraq

American military advisors have started their "assessment" mission in Iraq, Pentagon officials said Tuesday, the first step in what could be a sustained U.S. effort to help the battered Iraqi military beat back an onslaught by Islamist fighters. About 130 U.S. military personnel, including approximately 40 special operations troops already in Iraq, will work with ...

AFP
AFP

American military advisors have started their "assessment" mission in Iraq, Pentagon officials said Tuesday, the first step in what could be a sustained U.S. effort to help the battered Iraqi military beat back an onslaught by Islamist fighters.

About 130 U.S. military personnel, including approximately 40 special operations troops already in Iraq, will work with Iraqi forces to establish a "Joint Operations Center" in Baghdad. Together, they will assess Iraq’s current security capabilities and the situation on the ground now that Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham fighters have taken over large swaths of the country. Another four teams, for a total of 50 more troops, will soon arrive in Iraq. The White House has authorized as many as 300 troops for the Iraq mission but Pentagon officials said it’s not yet clear if that many will be needed there.

"These teams will assess the cohesiveness and readiness of Iraqi security forces, higher headquarters in Baghdad, and examine the most effective and efficient way to introduce follow-on advisors," Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said Tuesday. The teams will get to work immediately and provide findings "through the chain of command" within the next two to three weeks, he said.

Dozens of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR missions, over Iraq are also underway, and U.S. officials say they plan to conduct as many as 35 manned and unmanned flights daily to give U.S. and Iraqi forces a better picture of Sunni fighters’ movements and battlefield positions.

More than 1,000 people have been killed in the last three weeks as ISIS militiamen storm across the country, according to a United Nations estimate released Tuesday, which termed the figure "very much a minimum." The fighters have conquered broad swaths of northern and central Iraq, including Mosul, the country’s second-largest city.

Secretary of State John Kerry, visiting the Kurdish region of Iraq Tuesday, is meeting with Iraqi leaders to push for a unity government capable of narrowing growing sectarian divide. Kerry is trying to persuade Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to share power with the country’s Sunnis and Kurds or step aside. Meanwhile, ISIS marches ever closer to Baghdad, forcing Maliki to ask the U.S. for assistance.

President Barack Obama, who proudly ended the Iraq War in 2011 and brought home all U.S. combat troops, ordered 300 advisors back to Iraq last week.

Although the troops will be armed, the White House stresses that they will not serve in a combat role. Airstrikes against ISIS have also not been ruled out. Eager to avoid stepping into the conflict inside Iraq that is fed by violence across the border in Syria, though, the troops’ assessment will at least partially determine whether airstrikes would be effective enough to justify the risk of a broader armed intervention into the region.

Kerry on Monday hinted that airstrikes could be imminent and that the U.S. won’t necessarily wait for a new "multi-sectarian" government to form in Baghdad before taking direct action against ISIS.

"The president has also made it clear that airstrikes are not off the table," Kirby said. "And if he decides that that is required, then they remain postured in the region to do that, but there’s been no such decision."

The mission in Iraq couldn’t begin until Washington and Baghdad hammered out a last-minute legal understanding over what would happen if any of those troops got into hot water during the mission. The White House cited the lack of such an agreement as the reason U.S. troops were pulled out of Iraq in 2011. But a "diplomatic note," agreed upon Tuesday, provides troops the requisite immunity for a mission that Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, described as a "short-term limited direction" mission.

 Twitter: @glubold

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