Pentagon chief Ashton Carter said Monday that Washington will deploy 560 additional troops to aid Iraq’s fight to retake Mosul from jihadists, further deepening US military involvement in the country.
The announcement, which will bring the total authorised number of American military personnel in Iraq to more than 4,600, came two days after Baghdad announced the recapture of a base south of Mosul that is seen as an important step toward the eventual battle for the city.
Iraq’s second city Mosul has been under Islamic State group control since June 2014, when the jihadists overran large parts of Iraq, carrying out atrocities including summary execution-style killings, mass kidnappings and rape.
IS also holds territory in neighbouring Syria, but has lost significant ground in both countries, and Carter wants to highlight successes, even as the jihadists have struck back with devastating attacks in Iraq and abroad.
“I am pleased to report today that… we agreed for the United States to bolster Iraqi efforts to isolate and pressure Mosul by deploying 560 additional troops,” Carter said at the Baghdad airport following meetings with the Iraqi premier and defence minister.
President Barack Obama made ending the US’s nearly nine-year war in Iraq a centrepiece of his presidency, but Washington has been drawn ever deeper back into the country by the war against IS.
– ‘Springboard’ to Mosul –
“The additional troops will provide a range of support for Iraqi security forces, including infrastructure and logistical capabilities at the airfield near Qayyarah,” the Pentagon said in a statement.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced Saturday that Iraqi forces had recaptured the Qayyarah airbase, some 60 kilometres (35 miles) south of Mosul, which IS seized in June 2014.
The base “will become a vital springboard for the (Iraqi forces’) offensive into Mosul”, the Pentagon said.
Earlier in the day, Carter held meetings with Abadi as well as Defence Minister Khalid al-Obeidi.
“Let me begin… by expressing the condolences of myself and the United States for the terrorist attacks against the people of Iraq in recent weeks,” Carter told Abadi on his fourth visit to the country since becoming defence secretary in 2015.
IS has carried out bloody attacks against civilians as they lose ground, including a bombing in Baghdad earlier this month that killed 292 people, one of the deadliest to ever hit the country.
Ahead of his meetings, Carter told journalists flying with him to Iraq that he would discuss the next moves in the war against the jihadists.
“What I’ll be discussing with Prime Minister Abadi and our commanders there are the next plays in the campaign, which involve the collapse and control over Mosul,” he said.
– Devastating IS attacks –
The ultimate goal was “the recapture of all of Iraqi territory by the Iraqi security forces, but of course Mosul is the biggest part of that”, Carter said.
US defence officials say the campaign’s first “10 plays” have been successfully completed in the US-led counter-IS campaign in Iraq and Syria.
These steps include the recapture of several important areas across the two countries, including Ramadi in Iraq and Al-Shadadi, a town in northeastern Syria previously considered a strategic IS stronghold.
Carter and Obama have been criticised for the pace of the campaign, which began in autumn 2014 and got off to a slow start, particularly in war-torn Syria, where the United States had few assets on the ground to provide targeting information.
The Pentagon has announced a series of measures to speed up the war, including a revised mission to train anti-IS rebels in northern Syria and extra advisers for Iraqi forces.
Coupled with coalition air support, the results have seen the IS group losing roughly half its territory in Iraq and about 20 percent of its Syria claim, the Pentagon said.
But the jihadists have struck back against civilians as they lost ground.
On July 3, IS carried out the devastating bombing targeting shoppers in Baghdad that killed 292, many of whom were burned alive, sparking widespread anger among Iraqis, some of whom have accused the government of not doing enough to protect them.
Four days later, the jihadists struck a Shiite shrine north the capital, leaving another 40 dead.