In a significant shift of strategy in Iraq, the Obama administration is planning to establish a new military base in Anbar province and send 400 U.S. military trainers to help Iraqi forces retake the city of Ramadi and repel the Islamic State.
WASHINGTON — In a significant shift of strategy in Iraq, the Obama administration is planning to establish a new military base in Anbar province and send 400 U.S. military trainers to help Iraqi forces retake the city of Ramadi and repel the Islamic State.
Although a final decision by the White House has yet to be announced, the plan follows months of behind-the-scenes debate about how prominently plans to retake another Iraqi city, Mosul, which fell to the Islamic State last year, should figure in the early phase of the military campaign against the terrorist organization.
But the fall of Ramadi last month effectively settled the administration debate, at least for the time being. U.S. officials said Ramadi is now expected to become the focus of a lengthy campaign that will seek to regain Mosul at a later stage, possibly not until 2016.
Pending approval by the White House, plans are being made to use Al Taqaddum, an Iraqi base near the town of Habbaniyah, as another training hub for the U.S.-led coalition. “As the president has noted, we are considering a range of options to accelerate the training and equipping of Iraqi security forces in order to support them in taking the fight to ISIL,” said Alistair Baskey, a National Security Council spokesman. “Those options include sending additional trainers to Iraq.”
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Led by Gen. Lloyd Austin, the U.S. Central Command has long emphasized the need to strike a blow against the Islamic State by recapturing Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which was taken by the terrorist group in June 2014. Mosul is the capital of Ninevah province in northern Iraq and was the site of a sermon that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, defiantly delivered in July. The Beiji refinery, a major oil complex, is on a main road to Mosul.
But while Austin was looking north, State Department officials have long highlighted the strategic importance of Anbar province in western Iraq.
Anbar is home to many of Iraq’s Sunni tribes, whose support U.S. officials hope to enlist in the struggle against the Islamic State. Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar, is less than 70 miles from Baghdad, and the province borders Saudi Arabia and Jordan, two important members of the coalition against the Islamic State.
The differing perspectives within the administration came to the fore in April when Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asserted that Ramadi was not central to the future of Iraq.
But the Central Command’s emphasis on retaking Mosul depended critically on efforts to retrain the Iraqi army, which appear to have gotten off to a slow start. Some Iraqi officials also thought the schedule for taking Mosul was unrealistic, and some bridled when an official from the Central Command told reporters in February that an assault to capture the city was planned for this spring.
The Islamic State’s capture of Ramadi last month also punctured the administration’s narrative that the militant group was on the defensive. Suddenly, it appeared that the terrorist group, not the U.S.-led coalition, was on the march. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq scrambled to assemble a plan to regain the city.
The Islamic State now controls two provincial capitals, as well as the city of Fallujah. With the help of U.S. air power, the Iraqis have retaken Tikrit, northwest of Baghdad, but so many buildings there are still rigged with explosives that many of its residents have been unable to return.
To assemble a force to retake Ramadi, the number of Iraqi tribal fighters in Anbar who are trained and equipped is expected to be increased from about 5,500 to as many as 10,000.
More than 3,000 new Iraqi soldiers are to be recruited to fill the ranks of the 7th Iraqi Army division in Anbar and the 8th Iraqi Army division, which is in Habbaniyah, where the Iraqi military operations center for the province is also based.
But to the frustration of critics like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who say that the United States is losing the initiative to the Islamic State, the Obama administration has yet to approve the use of American spotters on the battlefield to call in airstrikes in and around Ramadi. Nor has it approved the use of Apache helicopter gunships to help Iraqi troops retake the city.
Dempsey alluded to the plan to expand the U.S. military footprint in Iraq during a visit to Israel on Tuesday, saying that he had asked war commanders to look into expanding the number of training sites for Iraqi forces. Speaking to a small group of reporters, Dempsey said a decision had not been made on whether that would make additional U.S. troops necessary.
“TBD — to be determined,” Dempsey said. A Defense Department official said afterward that a decision to increase U.S. troops in Iraq would most likely require only a “modest” number of additional trainers. The United States now has about 3,000 trainers and advisers in Iraq.
The United States is not the only country that is expanding its effort. Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, said this week that his country would send up to 125 additional troops to train Iraqi forces, including in how to clear improvised bombs.
Italy is also expected to play an important role in training the Iraqi police. Al-Abadi fired the police chief of Anbar after the fall of Ramadi, and the coalition is hoping to retrain the thousands of provincial police officers.
06-09-2015 at 20:36:28