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Obama Expected To Announce Modest Increase In U.S. Forces In Iraq

  • RFE/RL

An Iraqi Shi'ite fighter flashes the victory sign in front of graffiti of the Islamic State group in the town of Baiji on June 9.

An Iraqi Shi'ite fighter flashes the victory sign in front of graffiti of the Islamic State group in the town of Baiji on June 9.

U.S. President Barack Obama, under pressure from Republican critics who pounced on his recent admission that he doesn't have a "complete strategy" for combating Islamic State, is expected to soon order an increase in U.S. forces in Iraq.

The White House is considering sending as many as 1,000 more trainers and advisers to help Iraqi forces, although a total of 500 is more likely, U.S. officials said on June 9.

To accommodate the additional troops, the administration is also considering setting up a new military base in Iraq's Anbar Province, where the militant group is based.

Despite the political heat Obama is feeling over an Iraq strategy that so far has failed to prevent IS from making further gains in territory, a modest military expansion appears the likeliest choice among a range of options Obama is weighing, officials said.

Recent Islamic State victories in Iraq's Ramadi and Syria's Palmyra have thrown into doubt Obama's strategy of depending on U.S. airpower and Iraqi ground forces to win the war.

"It is a failure of leadership," said Rick Perry, a recently declared Republican presidential candidate. "If I were commander in chief, it would not take nine months to work with our military leaders to develop a complete strategy to destroy ISIS," another name for the extremist group.

In response to the growing criticism and pleas for help from Iraq, the Pentagon has drawn up plans to augment an existing mission, however, rather than forge a new approach.

"We've determined it is better to train more Iraqi security forces," Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steven Warren said. "Because the forces we've trained are performing better than expected, we feel it's in everyone's interest to train more."

The current U.S. mission comprises roughly 3,000 advisers and trainers.

The new training effort would carry "a particular emphasis on the Sunnis," one official said.

Until now, Baghdad has overseen the training of Sunni tribal fighters, who are likely to be key to victory in Ramadi and the surrounding Sunni-dominated Anbar Province.

Now, the Obama administration is looking at having American troops directly train those Sunni volunteers.

Weapons deliveries, however, would continue to flow through the Iraqi central government.

Iraq's Sunni Muslim community has yet to join in large numbers the fight against Islamic State, which practices a radical form of Sunni Islam.

Among Sunnis there is lingering distrust of the Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad, which IS fighters have sought to exploit.

"We'd like to see...more Sunnis come into the pipeline and be trained," Warren said. "This is what we have urged [Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi] to help solve."

After meeting Abadi in Germany on June 8, Obama said the Iraqi side needed to show it could make use of extra help from the United States and other allies.

"All the countries in the international coalition are prepared to do more to train Iraq security forces if they feel that additional work is being taken advantage of," Obama said on the sidelines of a Group of Seven summit.

"And one of the things we're still seeing in Iraq is places where we have more training capacity than we have recruits," the president said.

The U.S.-led coalition has trained 8,920 Iraqi troops so far in basic combat skills. About 2,601 are going through courses now.

The U.S.-trained troops have deployed to Samarra, north of Baghdad, to a front line in the north with Kurdish Peshmerga forces, and in Al-Karmah in Anbar Province, Warren said.

Other units that completed the training are at the ready for an eventual counterattack to retake the western city of Ramadi, which fell to IS on May 17.

With reporting by AP, Reuters, and AFP