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The Obama administration is planning to send several hundred more troops to Iraq to expand training of Iraqi forces, a move that’s intended to help them retake the provincial capital of Ramadi from the self-described Islamic State.
The plan reportedly involves increasing the number of US training sites in Iraq from four to five by establishing a new military base in Anbar Province. The US would send 400 to 500 additional troops to recruit and train Iraqis – largely Sunni tribal volunteers – to join the fight against IS.
Though the White House has yet to announce a final decision, The New York Times reports that the plan follows months of behind-the-scenes debate. It appears to be the likeliest choice among a range of options President Obama has considered to bolster the struggling Iraqi campaign against IS in the country's Sunni heartland.
A formal announcement could come as early as today. Reuters also cites a US official as confirming the additional troop deployment.
On Monday, President Obama said, “we don’t have, yet, a complete strategy” to confront the threat posed by IS. He said that US staff in Iraq sometimes found themselves with "more training capacity than we've got recruits."
US officials have said repeatedly that involving the Sunnis more deeply in the war is critical to ousting IS from Anbar.
“You need a ‘complete strategy,’ but right now there can’t be one without the Iraqis,” Lawrence Korb, a senior national security fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington and a former Pentagon official, told The Christian Science Monitor.
“Militarily you can bomb with 4,000 airstrikes and ... kill 10,000 of their fighters,” Mr. Korb added. “But without the Iraqis buying in and being willing to fight and die for their country, it’s not going to work no matter what strategy you have.”
Obama has ruled out sending ground combat forces to Iraq, reports The Associated Press. There are currently about 3,000 US military personnel, including trainers and advisers, in Iraq.
The Times reports that the number of trained and equipped Iraqi tribal fighters in Anbar would need to rise from about 5,500 to as many as 10,000 for them to retake Ramadi. On Monday, Obama urged Iraq's Shiite-led government to allow more of the nation's Sunnis to join the fight.
As long as Ramadi remains the focus of both Washington and Baghdad, IS will be allowed to maintain its grip on Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. The group's takeover of the city on June 10, 2014, stands as its biggest strategic and symbolic victory, reports The Wall Street Journal.
The campaign to retake Mosul is a linchpin of the U.S.-led coalition’s military strategy against Islamic State. But plans for the counteroffensive have been delayed – something the militants appear to be capitalizing on to persuade the population they are better off under the group’s control.
“Islamic State is doing everything to keep Mosul. It’s the capital of their caliphate here,” said Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to the president of the semiautonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq, which borders Mosul. “It will be a disaster of it stays in their hands.”
But for now, Mosul will have to wait – perhaps until 2016, according to The Times.