U.S. to Add Forces in Iraq, but Move Doesn't Quell Critics
The White House formally unveiled plans to send hundreds of new U.S. troops to the country amid criticism over its approach
By Gordon Lubold and Colleen McCain Nelson
June 10, 2015
WASHINGTON--The White House, under pressure to fortify President Barack Obama's war policy in Iraq, formally unveiled plans to send hundreds of new U.S. troops to the country, but its choice of a relatively conservative military option didn't quell criticism over its approach.
The White House said that in the coming weeks, the Pentagon would send up to 450 new troops to advise and support Sunni forces in Iraq's Anbar province, just weeks after Islamic State militants dealt Iraqi security forces an embarrassing defeat in the provincial capital of Ramadi.
U.S. officials said they also would accelerate the delivery of gear to aid the Sunni fighters in the looming battle against Islamic State militants, to include body armor, small arms and light machine guns. Washington will also speed the delivery of antitank missiles to counter Islamic State car bombs.
The advisers will be sent to a new site, Taqaddum Air Base, near an Iraqi operations center in Habbaniyah, to advise and assist Iraqi troops as they prepare to try to retake Ramadi and other parts of Anbar that have fallen to the Sunni extremist forces.
The new U.S. troops will join 3,100 already deployed to Iraq under the Pentagon's train-and-advise mission begun last year.
U.S. officials emphasized the new troops wouldn't participate in offensive combat operations nor will they act as on ground "spotters" for the U.S.-led airstrike campaign. Some Obama critics have urged the administration to have troops act as spotters, even if it means putting them in harm's way.
Mr. Obama made the decision to send the extra troops after consulting with national-security advisers and with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. The decision fits with an administration strategy of providing U.S. expertise, equipment and air power, but leaving the ground combat to local forces.
The move has done little to ease pressure from Capitol Hill, where Republican critics insist Mr. Obama lacks a coherent strategy and doubt the additional troops will change the state of play in Iraq.
Rep. Mac Thornberry (R., Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the need for added U.S. forces has been clear. "As far as it goes, I support this effort," he said on Wednesday. "However, disconnected from a broader coherent strategy, it is not likely to be any more successful than our previous efforts."
Mr. Thornberry said Defense Secretary Ash Carter would testify before his panel next week to answer questions about the overall U.S. strategy.
Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) said he remained "deeply concerned" that the additional forces weren't close enough to the front lines and couldn't serve as spotters to strengthen the airstrike mission. "That is the kind of assistance the Iraqis need, but the president has refused to provide," Mr. McCain said.
Members of Mr. Obama's party were also unsettled. Rep. Adam Schiff, (D., Calif.) said that while he supports Mr. Obama's move, he wasn't hopeful about the political changes the Iraqis must make themselves in a country starkly divided along sectarian lines.
"In the absence of these reforms, there is little that we can do to convince Sunnis to cast out ISIL," Mr. Schiff said, using an alternate term for Islamic State. Sen. Jon Tester (D., Mont.), agreed, saying the U.S. can't go it alone. "America possesses the greatest fighting force the world has ever known, but we can't put the Middle East back together by ourselves."
Administration officials defended Mr. Obama's decision, saying he would continue to evaluate U.S. strategy and consider a range of options.
"The president hasn't ruled out any additional steps," said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national-security adviser. "He's always open to considering refinements to the strategy. But I think we've been guided by a belief that the best way for Iraqis to take back those portions of their country that have fallen to ISIL is for them to be in the lead."
Mr. Obama's plan raises the number of troops authorized to be deployed by the Pentagon from 3,100 to 3,550. Elissa Slotkin, the acting assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, said that could be amended as needed. "We will always re-look at those numbers and make our best recommendations," she told reporters on Wednesday.
Troops will begin to arrive at the new airfield in the next six to eight weeks, Pentagon officials said. Only about 110 of the 450 troops being deployed will serve as advisers, the Pentagon said. The rest will provide security and other "sustainment" functions for the base.
The new site at the airfield won't include direct training of combat skills. Instead, American advisers will work with leaders of Iraq's 8th Division, to help plan the attack on Ramadi.
The advisers will assist in helping Iraqis decide how to best deploy their troops, improve their logistic systems and increase their intelligence capabilities, Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman said. Basic training in combat tasks will continue in the original four training sites set up by the U.S.
Col. Warren said the focus of U.S. and Iraqi operations is on Beiji, Ramadi and the broader Anbar area. But he said operations to retake Ramadi will help facilitate a later counterattack on Mosul, which might not come until next year.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said that by recruiting Sunni tribal fighters from Anbar, local Iraqi security forces would be fighting against Islamic State militants in their own province and their own towns.
"By opening this training mission essentially in the neighborhood where we want these Sunni tribal fighters to fight, we can make it easier for them to get training and equipment in Anbar Province and then go carry out the fight in Anbar Province," Mr. Earnest said.
--Julian E. Barnes contributed to this article.
Write to Gordon Lubold at Gordon.Lubold@wsj.com and Colleen McCain Nelson at firstname.lastname@example.org