Aides said President Obama would consider establishing a series of outposts in Iraq where U.S. advisers would work with Iraqi troops and local tribesmen.
NAPLES, Italy — President Obama is open to expanding the U.S. military footprint in Iraq with a network of bases and possibly hundreds of additional troops to support Iraqi security forces in their fight against the Islamic State group, White House officials said Thursday.
As Iraqi forces struggle on the battlefield, aides said Obama would consider establishing a series of outposts where U.S. advisers would work with Iraqi troops and local tribesmen. The bases would be run by Iraqis, and Americans would still not engage in ground combat, but they would play a more active role closer to the front lines.
Administration officials stressed that no proposal has been presented to Obama and added that they anticipated no decision in the next few weeks. But the prospect of further escalation came a day after the administration announced the opening of a new base in Anbar province, an Islamic State stronghold, with an additional 450 U.S. troops, bringing the total in Iraq to 3,550, the size of a typical Army brigade.
Administration officials said they would evaluate whether that new Anbar base makes a difference in coordinating the war effort and, if it does, would consider replicating the approach in other parts of the country.
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For Obama, who has long resisted being drawn into another ground war since pulling out all forces in 2011, the latest developments represented another incremental step back into a conflict he had once hoped to be done with by the time he left office. Supporters of a more robust effort against the Islamic State group called it a welcome if inadequate step to make good on the White House’s vow to defeat the Islamic State, while critics warned of sliding into a broader, bloodier and ultimately ineffective campaign.
“The reason that we would consider expanding the training operation and the advise-and-assist operation that’s under way will be because it’s been an effective element of our strategy,” said Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary. But Earnest emphasized that it was still “very hypothetical” and that “there are no immediate or specific plans to do that.”
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly raised the idea of establishing a network of what he called “lily pads” in Iraq while on a trip to Italy on Thursday. He said he did not envision another military base in Anbar, but Pentagon planners were looking at more northern areas for additional sites.
“You could see one in the corridor from Baghdad to Tikrit to Kirkuk to Mosul,” Dempsey told reporters aboard his plane.
The model would be the base being built at al-Taqaddum, an Iraqi post near Habbaniyah in eastern Anbar. The U.S. troops being sent there are to set up the hub primarily to advise and assist Iraqi forces and to engage and reach out to Sunni tribes in Anbar, officials said. One focus for the Americans will be to try to accelerate the integration of Sunni fighters into the Iraqi army, which is dominated by Shiites.
As the arrangements at al-Taqaddum show, even deploying small teams of advisers can involve much greater troop commitments. The number of Americans actually involved in advising the Iraqis at the base would be just a small fraction of the 450 announced by the administration.
While U.S. officials said earlier this week that 110 would be directly involved in training and advising, on Thursday they said there would be just 50 advisers. They will be split into two teams, special-operations forces who will work with Sunni tribes, and advisers who will work with the 8th Iraqi Army Division. The rest are to provide support, logistics and force protection.
Although the goal is to retake Ramadi, which fell to the Islamic State group last month, Dempsey indicated that an effort may be months away. He said it would take several weeks for the initial command and control center to be set up at al-Taqqadum.
“Timetables are fragile,” he said. “They are dependent on so many different factors.”