The Pentagon plans to send about 600 additional troops to Iraq to help launch a long-awaited offensive to retake Mosul in coming weeks, the most ambitious operation yet in the two-year military campaign against the Islamic State.
The escalation, which has been approved by the White House, suggests the challenges U.S.-backed Iraqi ground forces will face in assaulting a heavily defended major urban center that is Islamic State’s self-declared capital in Iraq and the largest city under its control anywhere.
The Pentagon has about 6,000 troops, mostly operating as advisers and trainers, in Iraq. U.S.-led coalition warplanes based outside Iraq have carried out thousands of airstrikes since mid-2014.
Most of the new U.S. troops will be deployed to Qayyarah, an Iraqi airbase known as Q-West, about 40 miles south of Mosul that has become a key staging base for the planned assault. The Pentagon already has sent hundreds of military engineers, logistics experts and other forces to the base.
The new advisers will be allowed to accompany Iraqi troops at the battalion level for the Mosul attack, meaning they will be operating closer to the front line. Until recently, U.S. advisers were largely confined to Iraqi division headquarters.
An Iraqi victory in Mosul would effectively end the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in Iraq. President Barack Obama would like to see the terrorists ejected or defeated in Iraq before he leaves office in January.
The offensive, first promised in early 2015, has been repeatedly postponed as Iraqi security forces focused on retraining and on pushing the terrorists from other cities and towns closer to Baghdad, the capital.
Iraqi President Haider al-Abadi said in a statement Wednesday that he requested more U.S. troops after he met with Obama on Sept. 19 at the United Nations in New York.
Al-Abadi said “the role of the trainers and advisers is not combat, but for training and consultation only.”
“It is our troops who will liberate the land,” he said.
Kurdish troops will coordinate with Iraqi and coalition forces in the attack. The autonomous Kurdish government in northern Iraq has agreed to receive refugees of all ethnic and religious groups. An estimated 1 million civilians are in the city.
In recent weeks, advancing Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces have retaken towns and cities around Mosul and have cut off major supply routes on nearly all sides of the city.
Iraqi ground forces, backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, pushed the terrorists from Sharqat last week, raising the Iraqi flag over a government compound. The town lies on the west bank of the Tigris River, around 50 miles south of Mosul.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said conditions for the offensive on Mosul are set, following Iraqi victories at Sharqat and other cities and bases, including Fallujah, Ramadi, Hit and Qayyarah.
“We have long planned on — and prepared for — a campaign that culminates in this phase in the envelopment of Mosul in the coming weeks and we are preparing the way for that,” he said Tuesday during a visit to Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico.
“This is a plan that has been in the works for some time, which the United States is contributing to, but there are other members of the coalition doing that also, and it is obviously the Iraqi security forces [who] are in the lead.”
Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week that the Iraqis being trained by the U.S.-led coalition for the Mosul offensive will be ready in early October.
The U.S. combat role in Iraq has increased steadily since Obama first authorized troops and air strikes in mid-2014. Special operations forces have accompanied Iraqi and Kurdish troops on raids and combat operations. Hundreds of additional troops are sent every few months to bolster support to Iraqi forces.
The Pentagon began extensive retraining of Iraqi troops in 2014 after Islamic State guerrillas first stormed in from Syria and seized large parts of western and northern Iraq.
The training has focused on nine Iraqi army brigades and three brigades of Kurdish fighters, known as peshmerga.
A brigade in Iraq can range from fewer than 1,000 troops to more than 3,000.
Officially, the Pentagon has deployed 5,247 troops in Iraq. But special operations forces and temporary deployments boost the total to more than 6,000.