WASHINGTON – Nearly half of the roughly 300 U.S. military advisers and special operations forces expected to go to Iraq are now in Baghdad and have begun to assess Iraqi forces in the fight against Sunni militants, the Defense Department said Tuesday as the U.S. ramped up aid to the besieged country.
On Capitol Hill, senators who left a closed briefing with senior Obama administration officials expressed hope Iraq could soon form a new government, perhaps in the next week, facilitating greater U.S. military action against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who attended that meeting, backed what he described as an advancing American strategy.
At the Pentagon, Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters the troops in Baghdad included two teams of special forces and about 90 advisers, intelligence analysts, commandos and some other support personnel needed to set up a joint operations center in the Iraqi capital. Another four teams of special forces would arrive in the next few days, Kirby said.
Those troops, added to the approximately 360 other U.S. forces that are in and around the embassy in Baghdad to perform security, would bring the total U.S military presence in Iraq to about 560.
Kirby also said the U.S. was conducting up to 35 surveillance missions over Iraq daily to provide intelligence on the situation on the ground as Iraqi troops battle the aggressive and fast-moving insurgency.
President Barack Obama last week announced he would send as many as 300 advisers into Iraq to assess and advise Iraqi security forces. Part of that plan involved setting up two joint operating centers – one in Baghdad and the other in northern Iraq, where a lot of the fighting has taken place.
The teams, largely made up of Army Green Berets, will evaluate the readiness of the Iraqi troops and their senior headquarters commanders in an effort to determine how best the U.S. can bolster the security force and where other additional advisers might be needed.
Kirby said the initial assessments from the teams could be completed in the next two weeks to three weeks, but he said there was no timeline for how long the troops would be in Iraq.
“I don’t have a fixed date for you as a deadline or an end date, but it’s very clear this will be a limited, short-term mission,” he said.
He said the insurgency was well organized and aided by foreign fighters and Sunni sympathizers in the country.
The briefing for all senators Tuesday evening was led by Anne Patterson, the top U.S. diplomat for the Mideast, and included military and intelligence officials.
“There is some hope that a new government can be formed fairly soon,” Graham told reporters afterward. He said U.S. airstrikes probably would be necessary at some point, but accepted the Obama administration’s rationale that first a more inclusive Iraqi government must be formed that peels off moderate Sunnis. Graham said the U.S. could start hitting the Sunni extremists at their bases in Syria, however.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., similarly urged U.S. action against the rebels’ commanders and supply lines.
“This is not about saving Iraq or saving the government of Iraq or about building a country in Iraq,” Rubio said. “That’s a long-term goal for the Iraqi people. This is an urgent counterterrorism situation that our country faces. It grows more dire by the moment. Our options become more limited by the moment.”
Both senators stressed the need for the U.S. to help defend Jordan. Graham said the threat of extremists extending their efforts from Syria and Iraq into Jordan was made very clear by the administration.