BOOST IN IRAQ TROOPS A SHIFT FOR U.S.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By W.J. Hen­ni­gan and Christi Par­sons

WASH­ING­TON — Pen­tagon of­fi­cials have warned for months that Is­lamic State, the Sunni ex­trem­ist group that Pres­i­dent Obama ini­tially dis­missed as a “JV team,” is nim­ble, ag­gres­sive and un­like any pre­vi­ous ter­ror­ist group.

On Wed­nes­day, alarmed by the mil­i­tants’ lat­est bat­tle­field suc­cesses, the White House tacked sharply and an­nounced the de­ploy­ment of an ad­di­tional 450 U.S. mil­i­tary ad­vi­sors and sup­port troops to help bol­ster Iraq’s be­lea­guered se­cu­rity forces, in­clud­ing lo­cal Sunni tribes.

The boost in troops, the first since Novem­ber, will ex­pand the U.S. foot­print to a fifth base, close to in­sur­gent strongholds in An­bar prov­ince. U.S. mil­i­tary train­ers al­ready op­er­ate at four bases, although one cur­rently lacks Iraqi trainees.

“This de­ci­sion does not rep­re­sent a change in mission,” De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash­ton Carter said in a writ­ten state­ment, not­ing that U.S. troops still will be barred from con­duct­ing of­fen­sive ground com­bat.

But the new fo­cus on break­ing the ex­trem­ists’ grip in An­bar marks a ma­jor shift in U.S. strat­egy and puts Amer­i­can troops con­sid­er­ably closer to the front lines.

The mil­i­tants’ sur­prise cap­ture last month of Ra­madi, cap­i­tal of An­bar, prompted a reap­praisal of Pen­tagon plan­ning. A fear that Is­lamic State fighters would en­trench them­selves in the city and use it as a launch­ing pad for at­tacks on Bagh­dad, an hour’s drive away, proved a fac­tor.

But so did White House recog­ni­tion that the mil­i­tary ap­proach that has evolved over the last year, a com­bi­na­tion of in­tense coali­tion airstrikes and hit-or-miss Iraqi ground as­saults, isn’t close to meet­ing Obama’s ob­jec­tive of push­ing Is­lamic State out of Iraq.

In re­cent months, the Pen­tagon had high­lighted ef­forts to re­take the strate­gic north­ern city of Mo­sul, even telling re­porters this spring that a U.S.-backed ground of­fen­sive was all but im­mi­nent.

That am­bi­tious plan has been shelved in­def­i­nitely. Mo­sul, a city of 1 mil­lion, fell to the in­sur­gents a year ago Wed­nes­day and re­mains the largest city un­der strict Is­lamic State con­trol. It serves as the Iraqi cap­i­tal of the group’s self-de­clared caliphate.

In­stead, U.S. of­fi­cials are seek­ing to rekin­dle the so­called 2006-08 An­bar Awak­en­ing. Back then, Sunni tribal fighters paid and armed by the U.S. took on and ul­ti­mately helped de­feat Al Qaeda mil­i­tants, also Sun­nis, who had fu­eled a vi­cious sec­tar­ian war af­ter the 2003 U.S.-led in­va­sion.

Pen­tagon spokesman Col. Steve War­ren cited that model Wed­nes­day, say­ing the goal is to en­list the Sunni mili­tias to help re­take Ra­madi and the nearby mil­i­tant strong­hold of Fal­louja.

“We have ex­pe­ri­ence with this,” War­ren said. “This is some­thing that we have had great suc­cess with in the past and some­thing we un­der­stand how to do.”

Af­ter hud­dling with Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Haider Abadi at the Group of 7 sum­mit in Ger­many early this week, Obama agreed to em­power the Sunni tribes again. Abadi, a Shi­ite Mus­lim, promised to re­cruit and train Sunni fighters for in­clu­sion in the regular army, a U.S. de­mand.

As a re­sult, Obama or­dered the Pen­tagon to ex­pe­dite de­liv­ery of weapons and equip­ment not only to Iraqi gov­ern­ment forces and al­lied Kur­dish fighters in the north, who have re­ceived U.S. aid since last sum­mer, but also to the tribal fighters in eastern An­bar. The cen­tral gov­ern­ment will co­or­di­nate the de­liv­er­ies.

The Shi­ite-dom­i­nated Iraqi army is un­pop­u­lar in pre­dom­i­nantly Sunni An­bar, where the troops are widely seen as an oc­cu­py­ing force. The hope is that the lo­cal Sunni tribes­men, trained and armed by Amer­i­cans, and with clear sup­port from Bagh­dad, can again turn the tide.

Much of the ef­fort will be run from Taqad­dum air base, which be­came the Iraqi mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions base in eastern An­bar af­ter the army re­treated from Ra­madi. Pen­tagon of­fi­cials said U.S. troops will be sent there to ad­vise and as­sist Iraqi com­man­ders with spe­cific battle ma­neu­vers, co­or­di­na­tion of units and attack plan­ning in An­bar.

“I think this will have a fairly dra­matic ef­fect,” Brett H. McGurk, deputy as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of State for Iraq and Iran, said Wed­nes­day dur­ing a White House con­fer­ence call with re­porters.

He said fighters from three tribes have as­sisted Iraqi army troops in west­ern An­bar, near Al Asad air base, where U.S. troops have been based since Novem­ber.

“We’ve been able, through our ad­vise-and-as­sist mission, to or­ga­nize the tribes, or­ga­nize Iraqi forces and take back ter­ri­tory,” McGurk said. “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 re­in­force that.”

The White House an­nounce­ment did not in­clude plans for Apache attack he­li­copters or U.S. spot­ters on the ground to call in airstrikes, op­tions that some hawks say are needed. But McGurk left the door open for widen­ing the U.S. in­volve­ment.

“The pres­i­dent has al­ways said he’ll con­sider any op­tion that’s rec­om­mended to him,” McGurk said. “In the case of Taqad­dum, we have to get on the ground, we have to de­velop the re­la­tion­ships there, work with the joint op­er­a­tions cen­ter, work with their plan, and then we’ll as­sess from there.”

The new de­ploy­ment will bring the num­ber of U.S. troops in Iraq to about 3,550.

The shift comes as mil­i­tants have stepped up their use of ve­hi­cle bombs and sui­cide at­tacks, a de­mor­al­iz­ing tac­tic that proved cru­cial in their de­feat of Iraqi troops in Ra­madi. The in­sur­gents turned Amer­i­can-made Humvees and con­struc­tion ma­chin­ery into mas­sive rolling weapons that lev­eled en­tire city blocks.

In re­cent months, U.S. ad­vi­sors have trained Iraqi sol­diers at four bases: Taji, Bes­maya, Ir­bil and Al Asad. Although U.S. of­fi­cials said more than 9,000 Iraqis have com­pleted the train­ing, and 3,000 more are en­rolled, Al Asad has no trainees at the mo­ment. The base is the most re­mote and cour­ses were held there last month on small unit tac­tics and how to counter road­side bombs, of­fi­cials said.

Obama has sought to thread a nee­dle in Iraq — do­ing enough to hurt Is­lamic State but re­sist­ing pres­sure to launch a deeper in­ter­ven­tion. Josh Earnest, the White House press sec­re­tary, said Wed­nes­day that Obama wants to sup­port the Iraqis but that he doesn’t want to “do for them what they must do for them­selves.”

That’s not good enough for some crit­ics, who de­cry the lat­est U.S. move in Iraq as too lit­tle, too late.

Mowaf­fak Rubaie, Iraq’s for­mer na­tional se­cu­rity ad­vi­sor and now a law­maker, urged the White House to deploy U.S. troops into com­bat to di­rect coali­tion airstrikes on mil­i­tants in densely pop­u­lated ar­eas.

“We need him to put spot­ters on the ground,” Rubaie said in an email. “We need him to in­ten­sify the airstrikes and change the rules of en­gage­ment. We need him to per­form more high-end counter-ter­ror­ism op­er­a­tions” against the mil­i­tants, he said.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said Obama’s de­ci­sion was “a step in the right di­rec­tion” but in­suf­fi­cient.

“It’s clear that our train­ing mission alone has not been enough to slow down the spread of ” Is­lamic State, Boehner told re­porters.

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