Under pressure to come up with a winning strategy to defeat the Islamic State, President Obama ordered up to 450 more U.S. troops to Iraq Wednesday to “advise and assist” Iraqi forces, as Capitol Hill lawmakers pressed for a greater role in authorizing the burgeoning military operation.
While White House aides said the new troops would be involved in training Iraqi forces, Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said none of the additional 450 troops will be trainers.
Col. Warren said none of the personnel are prepared or equipped to conduct training. He said the troops will be advising and assisting Iraqi forces, especially in retaking Ramadi, and making connections with Sunni tribes to eventually train them.
“No trainers, no one teaching people how to shoot straight. What they’re doing there is a different type of mission,” Col. Warren said.
The troops will be sent to support local Iraqi security forces at a former U.S. military base in eastern Anbar province, a Sunni-dominated region where Islamic State fighters seized the key city of Ramadi three weeks ago. Mr. Obama issued his order just two days after saying his administration still lacked a “complete” strategy for improving the training of Iraqi troops, who’ve been criticized for fleeing instead of fighting.
The decision to send more advisers drew mixed reviews on Capitol Hill. Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, called it a step in the right direction but said Mr. Obama still lacks an “overarching strategy” for defeating the Islamic State.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican, called the president’s move “incrementalism at its best or worst, depending on how you describe it.”
Even Mr. Obama’s former military intelligence chief, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, said in testimony to lawmakers Wednesday that there’s “absolutely no end in sight and no clear U.S. policy” in Iraq and Syria.
The White House said Mr. Obama made the decision after a request from Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and upon the recommendation of his top U.S. military advisers.
“This train, advise and assist mission builds on lessons learned during the past several months and is just one aspect of our commitment to support the Iraqi Security Forces,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest.
The new order brings the overall U.S. troop level in Iraq to around 3,550, with most of them involved in training projects. Mr. Obama had withdrawn the last U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, but has been forced reluctantly to send a growing number of military advisers and to order airstrikes as the Islamic State has grown in numbers, territory and battlefield victories.
Several senators said the administration’s move highlights the need for Congress to officially authorize American operations against the Islamic State, which lawmakers have declined to consider for nearly a year.
Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat, said as U.S. assistance in the campaign against the Islamic State increases, so should the urgency among members of Congress to pass a new war authorization to present a united front in the conflict to allies, enemies and troops.
“It sure is evidence of the position that a need for an authorization is more urgent,” Mr. Kaine, a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, which would consider an authorization, told reporters Wednesday. “This is not going away any time soon. It is not going to be short.”
The president sent Congress his proposed war authorization in February amid criticism from both sides of the aisle that he didn’t provide a draft until six months into the campaign. Mr. Obama’s three-year authorization for the use of military force, or AUMF in legislative speak, would prohibit U.S. troops from participating in “enduring offensive ground combat operations,” a murky restriction that made some on Capitol Hill see it as a blank check and others see it as needlessly tying the president’s hands in combat.
Even without a new authorization on the books, Mr. Obama has been conducting strikes since August under previous war authorizations from 2002 against Iraq and 2001 against al Qaeda, which was passed in the days after 9/11 and, many argue, is being stretched to its legal limit to cover the current conflict.
Mr. Kaine’s bipartisan authorization for the use of military force, introduced this week along with Sen. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, tries to strike a balance between Democrats who said the president’s plan wasn’t restrictive enough and Republicans who felt it was too restrictive. This inability to find middle ground is the reason behind Congress abdicating its responsibility to declare war for months, Mr. Kaine said.
“There are important differences in detail and, I think, the differences in detail have stopped Congress from acting,” he said.
The three-year plan from Mr. Kaine and Mr. Flake would prohibit “the use of significant United States ground troops in combat against ISIL, except to protect the lives of United States citizens from imminent threat.”
It would also sunset a 2002 authorization for force in Iraq, like the president’s plan, and make the Islamic State-specific authorization the only legal authority for current strikes, eliminating a loophole where the administration could continue operating under the 2001 authorization despite Congress passing new wording.
Mr. Kaine said that while he thinks the plan could be voted on as is, he’s open to colleagues raising amendments and debating the details of the plan because it’s so important to have this national conversation.
“The 23 minutes we talked about this yesterday is the most we’ve talked about it in any formal meeting since December,” Mr. Kaine said of the introduction of his plan in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting on Tuesday. “We got to sit around and listen to each other and share ideas, and I would suspect that our draft is going to be the starting point.”
Mr. Flake said that he expected the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would discuss his proposal within the next “several weeks.”
Mr. Boehner, who for months demanded Mr. Obama send up a war request, now says the president should tear up his current plan and start over.
“It’s clear that our training mission alone has not been enough,” he said, adding that someone will need to do more on the ground — whether it be the U.S. or its allies.
Administration officials insisted that the new plan is not a change in U.S. strategy, but an effort to get Sunnis more involved in the fight.
There are persistent criticisms that the Shiite-led Iraqi government in Baghdad under Mr. al-Abadi isn’t committed to recruiting Sunni tribesmen as fighters, a weakness that contributed to the ouster of previous Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Islamic State militants have held the northern city of Mosul in Iraq for a year, and have controlled Fallujah for more than a year.
White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said Mr. Obama also ordered “expediting delivery” of military equipment and material to the Iraqi central government to aid its security forces in the north and west of the country.
“We want to make sure that the Iraqis fighting [the Islamic State] on the ground have the equipment they need,” Mr. Rhodes said.
As part of the revised strategy, the U.S. will provide $8.3 million to an international stabilization fund to help Iraqis in areas cleared of the Islamic State.
White House officials also acknowledged that the Islamic State’s battle campaign in the Euphrates River Valley has been aimed ultimately at attacking Baghdad, the capital of Iraq.
Mr. Rhodes said U.S. troops will not serve as advisers alongside Iraqi forces in the field, nor will they help in coordinating airstrikes. He said the administration’s “overriding focus” is making sure to boost “Iraqi capacity on the ground.”
“Iraqis want to be in the lead themselves,” Mr. Rhodes said. “That would be a more sustainable model.”
But another presidential aide said Mr. Obama “hasn’t ruled out any additional steps,” and that deploying additional troops later is possible.
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