Amid persistent setbacks in the fight against the Islamic State group, US President Barack Obama turned the US military’s focus to the Sunni-Shiite divide, ordering hundreds of troops to Iraq to better integrate Iraqi forces and lay the groundwork to retake Ramadi and other key cities.
The expanded military campaign is to set up a new base in Anbar Province to advise Iraqi forces on how to plan and organize operations and help them reach out to Sunni tribes and bring them into the battle.
However, it leaves out any move to send US forces closer to the front lines, either to call in airstrikes or advise smaller battlefront units, underscoring Obama’s reluctance to plunge the US military deeper into war.
Under the plan announced on Wednesday, up to 450 more US troops are set to deploy to Iraq in the next six to eight weeks and set up a fifth training site al-Taqaddum, a desert air base that was a US military hub during the 2003-2011 war.
The site is to be dedicated to helping the Iraqi Army integrate Sunni tribes into the fight, an element seen as a crucial to driving the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, out of the Sunni-majority areas of western Iraq.
The expanded effort is also to include expediting the delivery of US equipment and arms to Iraq, including directly to troops at al-Taqaddum, under the authority of the government in Baghdad
The US is insistent that its troops would not have a combat role, but they might venture out of the base in order to help identify and recruit Sunni tribes. About a quarter of the new troops are to be advisers, and the remainder are to handle security, logistics and other administrative tasks.
Obama this week lamented that the US lacks a “complete strategy” for defeating the Islamic State and officials pointed to a lack of recruits among Sunnis. The administration insisted on Wednesday that the plan is not a change in the US strategy, but instead said it addresses that Sunni recruitment failure.
The Sunni-Shiite divide has been at the heart of the Islamic State’s successes in Iraq. US officials blamed the Iraqi government for last year’s collapse of the military in the face of the Islamic State onslaught. Many Sunnis in the armed forces dropped their weapons and fled, unwilling to fight for the Shiite-led government.
Some local citizens in Sunni-majority areas still fear an invasion and reprisals from Iran-backed Shiite militia even more than domination by the Islamic State.
Iraqi leaders in the Shiite-led government have also been slow to recruit Sunni tribesmen, fearing that the fighters, once armed, could turn against them.
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