Just How Big is the U.S. Footprint in Iraq? Even the Spokesman Can’t Say
There are hundreds more U.S. troops deployed to Iraq than the Pentagon admits.
The Pentagon is refusing to release the total number of U.S. troops deployed to Iraq, despite claiming for months that the full force is holding steady at around 3,800. On Monday, a Baghdad-based military spokesman for the U.S. effort in Iraq said he has been ordered not to divulge the true number, which could be hundreds higher than that. The spokesman, Col. Steve Warren, is himself not counted among U.S. troops on the ground, despite being based in Baghdad since last September.
Questions about the U.S. footprint in Iraq rose anew after an American Marine on a previously undisclosed mission was killed Saturday, when two Katyusha rockets launched by Islamic State fighters slammed into the outpost where he was based in the country’s north. His death forced the Pentagon to confirm the deployment of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit in which he was serving. As many as 200 Marines have been posted at the firebase just 50 miles south of the Islamic State-controlled city of Mosul.
Not only was the deployment of Marines from the 26th MEU kept a secret, but the newly-constructed firebase where its troops are living was also unknown until this weekend.
Their deployment is not included in the overall number of publicly acknowledged troops on the ground in Iraq, meaning the actual size of Washington’s involvement could be vastly larger than officials admit.
The official number of troops in Iraq is officially capped at 3,870, making Defense officials loathe to admit that the number has crept higher. President Barack Obama campaigned on a promise to end the war in Iraq and has only reluctantly sent troops back in after the Islamic State overran much of the country’s north, leading to a near collapse of the Iraqi army.
The Defense Department insists it does not need to count troops who are only temporarily sent to Iraq. That includes the Marines outside of Mosul who have been tasked with securing a nearby Iraqi Army base and an estimated 100 U.S. advisors who are stationed there, Warren said.
Known as Firebase Bell, the Marine outpost is the first American-only military post opened in Iraq since the U.S. withdrawal in 2011. While most Americans did not know about it, the Islamic State sure did.
The base has been attacked twice by ISIS fighters since opening earlier this month. The small outpost was first attacked Saturday when ISIS militants hit it with two rockets, killing Marine Staff Sgt. Louis F. Cardin and wounding an undisclosed number of other Marines, several of whom were evacuated to Germany for further medical treatment.
The second attack came Monday morning, when “a squad-sized element” of ISIS fighters got close enough to the base for a shooting attack. The Marines returned fire, killing two Iraqis. No Marines were killed or wounded in the fight, Warren said.
Asked why the U.S. troops and their post were kept secret until the attack, Warren said “we were keeping it to ourselves until such time as the Marines arrived there, and they become fully operational and were ready to fight.”
Those Marines — from the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, based at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina — came to Iraq armed with four 155-mm Howitzer canons, and have been given the mission of protecting the U.S. military advisors working with the 15th Iraqi Army division, stationed nearby.
Photo Credit: U.S. Marine Corps