WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama ordered the deployment of up to 450 more U.S. troops to Iraq on Wednesday to advise and assist local forces in an effort to reverse the recent gains of the Islamic State.
Under the plan, the United States will open a fifth training site in Iraq, with the goal of integrating Iraqi Security Forces and Sunni fighters. The immediate objective is to retake the city of Ramadi, seized by the Islamic State last month.
Obama made the decision at the request of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and based on advice from Pentagon leaders, the White House said. The U.S. troops will not be used in a combat role.
“These new advisers will work to build capacity of Iraqi forces, including local tribal fighters, to improve their ability to plan, lead, and conduct operations against ISIL in eastern Anbar under the command of the prime minister,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. The Islamic State extremists have seized sizeable areas of both Syria and Iraq.
The plan is not a change in U.S. strategy, the administration says, but addresses a need to get Sunnis more involved in the fight, a much-cited weakness in the current mission.
Questions remain about the Shiite-led Iraqi government’s commitment to recruit fighters, especially among Sunni tribesmen, to oust the Islamic State from Ramadi and Fallujah, a nearby city the militants have held for more than a year.
Up to now, Iraqi officials have chosen to deploy most U.S.-trained Iraqi troops in defensive formations around Baghdad, the capital.
The new training site will be at al-Taqqadum, a desert air base that was a U.S. military hub during the 2003-2011 war. The additional troops will include advisers, trainers, logisticians and security personnel.
There now are nearly 3,100 U.S. troops in Iraq involved in training, advising, security and other support roles. The U.S. also is flying bombing missions as well as aerial reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering missions against the Islamic State’s forces, while counting on Iraqi ground troops to retake lost territory.
At a Capitol Hill news conference on Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said sending several hundred military advisers to Iraq “is a step in the right direction.” But he repeatedly criticized Obama for not having “an overarching strategy” for dealing with the Islamic State.
Other critics, such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican chairman of the Armed Services Committee, were dismissive of Wednesday’s decision.
“This is incremental-ism at its best or worst, depending on how you describe it,” McCain said.
The U.S. mission at al-Taqqadum will be more about advising Iraqi forces on operations against the Islamic State militants in Anbar than about providing individual troop training, a U.S. official said. It will be designed to accelerate the integration of Sunni tribes with Iraqi government forces.
The expanded effort also will include delivering U.S. equipment and arms directly to al-Taqqadum, not unilaterally but under the authority of the government in Baghdad. Thus it will not represent a change in the U.S. policy of providing arms only through the central government.
The U.S. already is training Iraqi troops at four sites — two in the vicinity of Baghdad, one at al-Asad air base in Anbar province and one near Irbil in northern Iraq. There is another training center for special operations forces near Baghdad.
The new site amounts to a modest tweak to the existing U.S. approach in Iraq, and illustrates Obama’s reluctance to escalate the fight and reintroduce U.S. soldiers into combat that he had vowed to bring to an end.
“How much of a combat role are we allowing U.S. troops to face on a day-to-day basis?” said Shawn Brimley, who worked at the White House and Pentagon during Obama’s first term and is now executive vice president for the Center for a New American Security. “That’s the debate inside the administration.”
It may be time for Washington to reassess its reliance on working through the Iraqi central government and instead work with individual ethnic groups, he said.
Other analysts stressed that the challenge is greater than simply recruiting and training Iraqi troops.
“U.S. support can help the Iraqi government, but no amount of support can make them win,” said Jon Alterman, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former State Department official. “Winning requires the Iraqi government itself to motivate its soldiers and reassure those whom those soldiers seek to protect.”
Baghdad and it’s Shiite-led government has been reluctant to get Sunnis more involved, said Michael Eisenstadt, an Iraq veteran and now senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“They fear once they arm these people they’ll eventually, potentially, turn against the Iraqi government,” he said.