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The Number Of US Troops In Iraq Keeps Creeping Up

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Officially, the missions the US military is launching in Baghdad are static, unchanging and defined. Protect the US embassy and other American personnel in Iraq. Assess the threat from the Islamic State and the performance of the Iraqi military. Figure out what steps the Pentagon next ought to take to aid Iraq through its crisis.

Unofficially, the Pentagon is indicating that the number of troops in Iraq is likely to continue the incremental expansion that President Barack Obama launched last month after Islamic State forces overran Sunni areas of the country.


A day after the Pentagon announced an additional 300 US troops arrived in Iraq to secure the embassy, its press secretary, Rear Admiral John Kirby, contended that Obama needs "flexibility" in assessing how many army special forces, marines and other uniformed personnel are sufficient for the missions he wants executed.


"There's no mission creep. The missions haven't changed. Some of the numbers have been added in the security assistance realm," Kirby said Tuesday.


"The commander-in-chief and the military leadership here in the building, I think, expect and should have a certain measure of flexibility here in how we manage the resources available."


That "flexibility", critics say, is taking the form of a slowly deepening military involvement. According to statistics Kirby clarified on Tuesday, 120 of the 300 army special forces "advisers" authorized to plot the defense of Baghdad have yet to arrive. Among their jobs is to tell the Pentagon later this month what the follow-on role of the United States ought to be, in response to what Kirby described as a continued threat to Baghdad.


Already the skies above Iraq are dotted with US aircraft. The supplemental embassy protection force took with them Apache attack helicopters and unarmed drones, which the Guardian has learned are Shadows, last seen flown over Iraq as tactical surveillance aircraft during the 2003-2011 US war. They come in addition to the larger, armed drones already flying up to 35 daily missions above Islamic State-held territory.


But they are not the aircraft the Iraqi government wants. Lukman Faily, Baghdad's ambassador to Washington, on Tuesday reiterated his plea to use US combat airpower against the jihadist militants, leavening his request with a warning that Obama's intransigence will compel Baghdad to turn to US enemies and rivals such as Iran, Syria and Russia to take up the slack. The Daily Beastreported that Russian Su-25 fighter jets are set to fly over Iraq.


Kirby sounded a sanguine note when asked during a Tuesday briefing about Iran and Russia filling the gaps the US has thus far left.


Iraq is "a sovereign state, a sovereign government. They have the right to speak to whoever they wish to in terms of security discussions. … We continue to urge all nations involved and interested in this, whatever actions they take, whatever decisions they make, that it doesn't inflame the sectarian tension on the ground there."


Since the Islamic State began its march through Iraq, Obama administration officials have warned that Americanizing the Iraqi response would be futile absent a transformed Iraqi political leadership that will include disaffected Sunnis – something of a mantra, often thwarted in Iraq, since the Iraqi insurgency began in 2003. That process stalled in the Iraqi parliament on Tuesday, raising questions about Baghdad's seriousness despite its talk of urgency.


But the Obama administration has not wanted to expressly make air strikes contingent on a new government, in large part because it neither wants to be responsible for a new Iraqi power structure nor does it want to appear as if it has installed a new government.



Asked about the stalled formation of the next Iraqi government, Kirby said he doesn't see "any impact to these limited missions". With that, Kirby neatly elided its impact to any follow-on missions, both on the ground and in the air.



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Guest Saturday, 15 August 2020