WASHINGTON — The US will send up to 450 more personnel in non-combat roles to train assist Iraqi security forces and tribal militaries to combat the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, the White House announced Wednesday.
The US will also continue to speed the flow of defense equipment to the Iraqi government, administration officials said.
The move increases US personnel in Iraq to 3,550, three-and-a-half years after the US military officially withdrew from Iraq.
In a statement, the White House said the increase is designed "to provide personnel to assist with planning, integration and support of Iraqi Security Forces and tribal forces as they fight to retake the Ramadi and Fallujah corridor."
The troops will be stationed at al-Taqaddum Air Base, a decision based on the US focus on Anbar province.
The personnel being sent are not in the same vein as the trainers sent to four other locations in Iraq, said Pentagon spokesman Col. Steven Warren.
While those locations are more focused on basic training of troops, such as how to shoot a weapon, the new individuals personnel are focused on providing the Iraqi 8th Army Division advice on how to operate.
That includes "everything from how to best deploy their troops, to improve their logistics systems, to increase their intelligence capabilities, to how to manage their administrative processes," Warren said.
The 450 personnel are also being charged with improving relations with Sunni tribesmen, with the goal of encouraging greater Sunni presence inside the Iraqi military — and to prepare for a day when Sunni militias can be trained directly.
Iraqi Army recruits train under US supervision on April 12 in Taji, Iraq. The White House has announced more US trainers will be sent to Iraq.
Photo Credit: John Moore/Getty
"By facilitating these connections, by facilitating this relationship, by facilitating the interoperability between the Iraqi government and the Sunni tribes, we believe this will have two downstream effects," Warren explained. "We believe it will motivate additional Sunni personnel to simply join the Iraqi security forces, and number two, we believe it will help us identify Sunni tribal military elements that, when all the conditions are right, we will be able to train."
The Iraqi government plans to mobilize tribal fighters as part of its overall plan to retake Anbar province from the Islamic State, Brett McGurk, deputy special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter-ISIL, told reporters on Wednesday.
"We have had success in that regard out in Wwestern Anbar, at al-Asad Air Base, where we've been based since November," McGurk said. "We've been working with three tribes out there and with the 7th Iraqi Army Division.
"We've been through our advise and assist mission to organize the tribes, organize Iraqi forces and take back territory," he continued. "That's been a real success. And we've looked at that in terms of what's worked and can we build on that, can we reinforces that."
Over the past couple months, t The Iraqis have also been workeding with Sunni tribal fighters at al-Taqaddum Air Base over the last couple of months, McGurk said.
"On May 27, we had 800 tribal fighters at Habbaniya, just across the street from Taqaddum, and we had some guys there to kind of see that process, and it was quite impressive," he said. "Eight hundred tribal fighters; they were all equipped with weapons and they are now integrated in Iraqi security force operations. So the government is committed to tribal mobilization, as we are, and we think this second site will really help enable that."
Elissa Slotkin, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, said part of the decision in basing the personnel at al-Taqaddum included potential risk to US forces, but indicated those assessments showed a relatively limited risk.
Warren demurred when asked to identify how many of the 450 personnel were security forces, but said "the security force is substantial and, we believe, adequate to protect our forces."
Mobilization for the mission will begin "immediately," Warren said, but it will be six to eight weeks before operations begin. The personnel being assigned to al-Taqaddum are a mix of soldiers already positioned within Iraq who will be shifted over and outside forces.
The officials added that there is an estimated 20,000-30,000 foreign fighters operating in Iraq, including about an estimate of 180 Americans who have attempted to join ISIL.
As part of expedited weapon sales, the US is pushing the flow of anti-tank munitions. That is important, McGurk said, because ISIL has begun using large trucks rigged as suicide bombs as its "weapon of choice."
But most of the weapons being expedited are what Warren called "brigade equipment sets" earmarked primarily for the Iraqi 8th division — individual soldier equipment such as small arms, body arm, and communications gear.
The loss of Ramadi to ISIL forces in May was seen as a sign by many that the US strategy for combating ISIL has faltered.
Administration officials today insisted the increase of troops is not a strategy change, but simply a continuation. At the same time, they left the door open to future changes in operations.
"The president hasn't ruled out any additional steps," said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. "He's always open to considering refinements to the strategy. But 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."
Added Slotkin: "We think we have the right numbers, but as Ben and others [have] said, we will always re-look at those numbers and make our best recommendations when we have them," something that could include increasing the number of personnel on the ground.
Last week, a senior Pentagon official admitted Ramadi gave the government pause and led to a review of US efforts.
In a May 28 briefing with reporters, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced that he had launched a task force to look into changing the train and equip mission.
In a CNN interview in May, Carter where he appeared to take a shot at Iraqi military forces in Ramadi, saying, "they showed no willingness to fight."
Carter has since cast those comments in a different light, indicating a better trained and equipped force would have been better able to stand up to ISIL.
"I think training and equipment affect the effectiveness of the forces, and therefore their ability to operate, their confidence in their ability to operate, so there is a direct relationship," he said.
The decision to put about 450 US troops at al-Taqaddum brings an array of strategic advantages.
"Al-Taqaddum made sense for several reasons," said Warren, the Pentagon spokesman.
"The most important reason is that the Anbar operations center, which is an Iraqi outfit, Iraqi fusion center, had been located in Ramadi. That Anbar operations center which is the central operations center for operations in Anbar province, relocated to al-Taqaddum," Warren said.
Long known to US troops as "TQ," al-Taqaddum is a sprawling facility along the sparsely populated southern edge of the Euphrates River Valley in between al Anbar's two major cities — Ramadi and Fallujah.
Situated along Lake Habbaniya, al-Taqaddum was a major logistical hub for US forces in Iraq after the 2003 invasion until it was returned to the Iraqi security forces in 2009. It has at least two large runways suitable for fixed-wing aircraft.
In addition to providing a location to project military power into western Anbar Province, al-Taqaddum is also connected by back roads to the cluster towns south of Baghdad once known to US troops as the "Triangle of Death." That area is an important Sunni-Shia fault line and those towns — including Mahmoudiyah, Yusufiyah, Latifiyah, Iskandariyah — have large Sunni minorities.
Since 2003, Sunni extremists have sought control over the region, which can provide vehicle access to Baghdad from the south and put pressure on the capital city.
Military Times reporter Jeff Schogol contributed to this report.