WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama authorized on Friday a broad expansion of the U.S. military mission in Iraq that could boost the total number of American troops there to 3,100 and spread advisory teams and trainers across the country, including into Anbar province where fighting with Islamic State militants has been fierce.
The president's decision to escalate the U.S. effort in Iraq comes just three days after midterm elections that were bruising for Democrats and amid persistent arguments that more U.S. troops are needed to bolster the struggling Iraqi forces. In particular, the Iraqi government, members of Congress and others have called for troops in Anbar in western Iraq, where extremists have been slaughtering men, women and children.
Obama authorized the Pentagon to send up to 1,500 more troops to Iraq, adding to the 1,600 previously allowed. There are currently about 1,400 there.
The plans are all contingent on Congress approving his nearly $5.6 billion request to fund the expanded mission. The troops will not be able to deploy until legislation passes and the president signs it.
Congress hopes to complete the defense policy bill in the postelection, pre-holiday session and will consider the Iraq funding along with the administration's request for billions more for military operations overseas. Lawmakers are still pressing the White House for additional details on how the money would be spent.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said the military will set up several sites across Iraq to train nine Iraqi Army brigades and three peshmerga brigades, which are made up of Iraqi Kurdish forces. The military will also establish two operations centers where small advisory teams can work with Iraqi forces at the headquarters and brigade levels.
Kirby said one of those centers will be in Anbar province, where U.S. troops fought al-Qaida extremists in brutal fighting in 2004 to 2007, costing more than 1,000 American lives and 9,000 Iraqi lives, mainly in the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi.
He added that the U.S. also is considering training of some of the Sunni tribes. In 2007, Sunni Arab tribes in Anbar joined forces with Americans — in what was called the Anbar Awakening — and dealt a blow against the insurgents that many credit with turning the tide in that conflict.
The new Iraqi leaders have pledged to be more supportive of the Sunni tribes than the previous Shiite government was, although Kirby said it's unclear whether the Baghdad government will provide them with weapons.
Kirby said the expansion was based on a request from the Iraqi officials, the U.S. military's assessment of Iraqi military progress and as part of a campaign plan "to defend key areas and go on the offensive against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant," another name for IS.
The U.S. troops will not be in combat roles but will train Iraqi forces in protected locations around the country. Until now, U.S. troops have largely been confined to Baghdad and Irbil, including two operations centers in those cities. Of the 1,500 troops, Kirby said that about 630 would be used for the advisory teams, including support and security forces, and the rest would be for the training mission. Troops could begin deploying as soon as this month, if Congress approves the funding, but it will take a couple months to get the training sites ready, and the actual training will take six to seven months.
The funding request followed a meeting among Obama and congressional leaders on Friday, which included a military briefing. Of the approximately $5 billion for the Pentagon, about $3.4 billion would support ongoing operations and strikes on the Islamic State, and $1.6 billion would support the training and equipping mission for the Iraqis. The remainder is State Department funding to support diplomatic efforts.
Kirby said Iraq and other coalition nations will contribute money, and other nations will also send trainers. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel met with the Danish Minister of Defense Nicolai Wammen on Friday at the Pentagon, and Kirby said the minister committed to sending up to 120 trainers for Iraqi forces.
The U.S. has been launching airstrikes on Islamic State group militants and facilities in Iraq and Syria for months, as part of an effort to give Iraqi forces the time and space to mount a more effective offensive. Early on, the Islamic State group had gained ground across Iraq.
Lately, however, with the aid of the U.S. strikes, IS has suffered a number of losses in Iraq, where it is fighting government forces, peshmerga and Shiite militias aided by Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah group.
Last week, Iraqi forces recaptured the town of Jurf al-Sakher. IS also lost a string of towns near the Syrian border last month. Besieged Iraqi troops have also managed to maintain control of Iraq's largest oil refinery outside the town of Beiji north of Baghdad, despite numerous attempts by the Islamic State group to capture it.
Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Friday that he has "long been concerned that the president has underfunded our combat operations against terrorists."
He said he will give the funding request fair consideration, but added, "I remain concerned that the president's strategy to defeat ISIL is insufficient. I would urge the president to reconsider his strategy and clearly explain how this additional funding supports a new direction. Such clarity is more likely to find swift congressional approval."
ISIL is one of several acronyms for the Islamic State.
Associated Press writers Darlene Superville, Andrew Taylor, Donna Cassata and Josh Lederman contributed to this report.