An additional 450 U.S. troops will be sent to Iraq where they will open a new training base for Iraqi soldiers fighting Islamic State militants.
The additional troops are destined for Taqaddum Air Base and will not be forward deployed with Iraqi ground units or deployed as spotters for airstrikes, as many U.S. officials have said is necessary to improve the effectiveness of the coalition air offensive against ISIS.
The move, which will bring the number of U.S. service members in Iraq to 3,550, is intended to bolster the beleaguered Iraq Army, which has suffered numerous setbacks at the hands of ISIS fighters. The soldiers will help plan an offensive intended to retake the Ramadi and Fallujah corridor, according to a DoD statement.
“This decision does not represent a change in mission, but rather adds another location for DoD to conduct similar activities in more areas in Iraq,” the statement said. “U.S. forces continue to perform an advisory, training, and support role and are not conducting offensive ground combat operations.
“Ultimately, these Iraqi forces will enable Iraq to better defend its citizens and retake its territory from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. This effort is in keeping with our overarching strategy to work with partners on the ground to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, initially praised the Obama administration’s decision to deploy more troops to the region, saying it would be a boon to the Iraq government and other Sunni Arab allies.
“Today’s announcement of an additional 450 U.S. troops to Iraq responds to a real need from our Sunni Arab partners in Anbar Province who are trying to resist ISIL. I know our troops will perform to the best of their abilities, and they have our full support.
He then turned on the Obama administration for lacking a “coherent” strategy to destroy ISIS and failing to either embed U.S. advisers with Iraqi units or deploy tactical air controllers. Both he and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno have called for both. Odierno told reporters in late May that U.S. advisers should be embedded with forward deployed Iraqi ground units to make them more effective in combat.
“I am also disappointed the additional forces will not deploy closer to the front lines to call in airstrikes or advise smaller Iraqi units in battle,” McCain said in a June 10 statement. “That is the kind of assistance the Iraqis need, but the President has refused to provide.
Reports based on information from U.S. Central Command have said that 75 percent of U.S. sorties so far over Iraq have returned without dropping a bomb because of a lack of target spotting from the ground.
The senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Adam Smith (D-Wash.) praised the deployment as "prudent," saying it would speed the fielding of competent Iraqi troops who can then defeat ISIS independently.
"Progress against ISIL will be difficult unless there is an able and willing domestic fighting force that can take back territory from ISIL and we should continue to work with the Iraqis to develop that force," Smith said in a statement.
Rather than ask for U.S. troops to serve alongside Iraqi forces in the field, Smith called for officials to focus on securing a political solution to the crisis. He said Iraq must be led by a government inclusive and supportive of all factions and sects within the nation's borders.
"While it is important that we continue to train and equip the Iraqis, political leadership in Iraq must address the shortfalls of its governing system or large portions of the country will remain isolated and unlikely to fight for the government in Baghdad," Smith said. "The underlying problems in Iraq, and those that must be fixed to defeat ISIL and extremism in Iraq in the long run, can only be fixed by reconciliation among the ethnic and sectarian factions and by building an inclusive, representative, and effective government."
"In the short-term, the additional trainers and efforts to speed the delivery of equipment are good steps," he added. "But we must seriously evaluate the willingness of the Iraqis, and particularly the Shi’a politicians in Iraq, to build an inclusive Iraq, and we must be prepared to rethink our efforts in Iraq if they are not."
Echoing McCain, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC),lauded the deployment decision but derided Obama for lacking a “broader coherent strategy.”
“How our forces, whatever their numbers, can meet the president’s goal of degrading and defeating ISIL without that comprehensive strategy is beyond me,” Thornberry said.
Both Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Army Gen. Martin Dempsey are scheduled to testify on the issue before HASC on June 17.