The US has agreed to deploy more than 200 additional troops to Iraq and to send Apache helicopters for the first time into the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq, the first major increase in US forces in nearly a year, US defence officials said on Monday.
The uptick in American fighting forces – and the decision to put them closer to the front lines – is designed to help Iraqi forces retake the key northern city of Mosul, and to help retake Raqqa, the extremist’s group self-proclaimed capital in Syria.
Last June, the Obama administration announced that hundreds of troops would be deployed to help the Iraqis retake Ramadi – a goal they accomplished at the end of the year.
Of the additional troops, most would be Army special forces, who have been used throughout the anti-Islamic State campaign to advise and assist the Iraqis. The remainder would include some trainers, security forces for the advisers, and maintenance teams for the Apaches.
The decisions reflect weeks of discussions with commanders and Iraqi leaders, and a decision by President Barack Obama to increase the authorised troop level in Iraq by 217 forces – or from 3,870 to 4,087. The advise-and-assist teams – made up of about a dozen troops each accompanied by security forces – would embed with Iraqi brigades and battalion, likely putting them closer to the front lines and at greater risk from mortars and rocket fire.
The proximity to the battlefront will allow the US teams to provide more tactical combat advice as the Iraqi units move toward Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, still under Islamic State control. Until now, US advisers have worked with the Iraqis at the headquarters level, well back from the front lines.
The Apache helicopters are considered a significant aid to any attack on Mosul.
Last December, US officials were trying to carefully negotiate new American assistance with Iraqi leaders who often have a different idea of how to wage war. At that time, the Iraqis refused Apache helicopters for the battle to retake Ramadi.
Speaking to US troops at the airport in Baghdad, defense secretary Ash Carter also said the US will send an additional rocket-assisted artillery system to Iraq.
US officials have also said that the number of special operations forces in Syria would be increased at some point, but Carter did not mention that in his comments. Officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorised to discuss the matter publicly.
Carter’s announcement on Monday came after several meetings with his commanders and Iraqi leaders about how the US can best help Iraqi forces retake Mosul.
He met with Lt Gen Sean MacFarland, the top US military commander for the Islamic State fight, as well as a number of Iraqi leaders, including Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Iraq’s minister of defence Khalid al-Obeidi.
He also spoke by phone with the president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani
Late last month, US Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters he and Carter believed there would be an increase in US forces in Iraq in the coming weeks.
Later this week, Obama will be in Saudi Arabia to talk with Gulf leaders about the fight against the Islamic State and ask for their help in rebuilding Ramadi, which took heavy damage in the battle.
US military and defence officials have made it clear that winning back Mosul is critical, but will be challenging, because the insurgents are dug in and have likely peppered the landscape with roadside bombs and other traps for any advancing military.
A senior defence official told reporters traveling with Carter that while Iraqi leaders have been reluctant to have a large number of US troops in Iraq, they also need certain capabilities that only more American or coalition forces can provide.
Iraqi leaders back the addition of more US troops if their work is coordinated with Iraqis and directed toward the retaking of Mosul. The official was not authorised to discuss the issue publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Iraq has been struggling with a political crisis, as efforts to oust the speaker of parliament failed. Al-Abadi’s efforts to get a new cabinet in place met resistance, and influential Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr issued a deadline, giving parliament 72 hours to vote in a new Cabinet.
At the same time, the costs of the war against IS, along with the plunge in the price of oil – which accounts for 95% of Iraq’s revenues – have caused an economic crisis, adding fresh urgency to calls for reform. Iraqi officials predict a budget deficit of more than $30 billion this year.