The Pentagon announced Thursday that it is considering expanding the U.S. presence in Iraq even further, placing troops at “several” former forward operating bases that U.S. troops occupied during the Iraq War.
The additional sites would be patterned on an initiative announced Wednesday to send more U.S. advisers to al Taqaddum air base to help Iraqis in the fight for Anbar province.
Col. Steve Warren, Pentagon spokesman, said the military is looking at “lily-padding” throughout Iraq and that anywhere where the U.S. had a forward operating base in the last war is an option for future operations, giving the department “hundreds of options.”
“We are actively considering where we can potentially establish other lily pads,” he said.
The move comes just a day after the administration announced it was sending 450 additional U.S. troops to al Taqaddum air base to advise and assist Iraqi military leaders in fights in Anbar province, including retaking the capital of Ramadi, as well as improving coordination between Sunni tribes and the Shiite-dominated central government in Baghdad. U.S. troops are expected to begin preparations to deploy immediately and will begin their mission within the next two months.
Col. Warren said the plan to open more sites like al Taqaddum would be influenced by how operations go at the air base, but that the Defense Department is considering reopening more forward operating bases even before it sees results at al Taqaddum.
He also said that expanding to more forward operating bases didn’t necessarily mean an increase in the U.S. troop presence — since forces could be moved from other parts of Iraq — but acknowledged that any redeployment would mean cutting back on missions elsewhere.
The long-term goal of the increased presence at al Taqaddum is to bridge the sectarian gap between Sunni tribes and the federal government, in order to get more local Sunni fighters into U.S. training programs to help in the battle against the Islamic State.
The Iraqi government is struggling to recruit soldiers, Col. Warren said, both because of budget issues and because it is having a hard time convincing people to join the fight against the Islamic State.
Almost 9,000 Iraqis have gone through the six-week U.S. training regimen. Because of the recruiting difficulties, however, none are currently in the basic training pipeline at the al Assad training site, Col. Warren said.
Because of that, the U.S. has adjusted its mission there and is currently putting a group of Iraqis who already passed basic training through a more advanced course that focuses on thwarting improvised explosive devices and maneuvering to prepare for fights in Anbar province.
In Italy, visiting Joint Chiefs of Staff head Gen. Martin Dempsey told reporters the U.S. military’s reach could extend even further into Iraq if the anti-Islamic State campaign gains momentum, and held out the possibility of eventually recommending to President Obama that U.S. troops take on the riskier role of calling in airstrikes, according to The Associated Press.
The general said he has not recommended putting U.S. troops closer to the battlefield to call in airstrikes, but pointedly held out the possibility that it may become necessary.
Asked why he has not yet recommended it, Gen. Dempsey said he believes it could backfire if not done for the right reasons.
“For discreet, limited offensive operations where Iraq security forces have the momentum I think there is a possibility we’ll do that at some point,” he said. “But as I’ve said, I just don’t think we’re there yet.”
⦁ This article was based in part on wire service reports.