The U.S. military will send up to 100 additional troops to Iraq in the form of an "expeditionary targeting force" that will conduct direct raids on Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria, defense officials said Wednesday.
The authorization of an expeditionary targeting force clears the way for military commanders to put more troops on the ground in combat situations.
"A raid is a combat operation, there is no way around that," Army Col. Steve Warren, a Defense Department spokesman in Baghdad, said Wednesday in a briefing with reporters in Washington.
"So, yeah, more Americans will be coming here to Iraq, and some of them will be conducting raids inside of both Iraq and Syria."
The move will raise the number of troops authorized for Iraq, which for months was limited to about 3,500. The additional troops will serve not only as advisers, but also will "conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence, and capture ISIL leaders," Defense Secretary Ash Carter said during testimony on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
That will also include unilateral operations into Syria, because "that puts enemies on notice that they don't know at night who might be coming in the window," Carter said.
The new force will include fewer than 100 "actual real commandos," and the rest will be support troops such as aviators, intelligence collectors and others, Warren said.
The increase in troops is the latest wrinkle in the recent intensification of the fight against the Islamic State, which also includes more airstrikes and more ground-level support for Iraqi security forces.
"We're at war," Carter said in his testimony to lawmakers. "We are using the might of the finest fighting force the world has ever known. Tens of thousands of U.S. personnel are operating in the broader Middle East region, and more are on the way."
The blunt characterization of the steadily growing military mission in the region stunned members of the House Armed Services Committee, who swung between questioning the strength of the White House strategy against the Islamic State group, also known as ISIL or ISIS, and labeling the mission a full-scale war.
Carter, who frequently appeared frustrated by the congressional questioning, acknowledged that Congress has not legally declared war or passed a new military force authorization for the mission.
"It's not war in a technical sense, but this is serious business," he said. "It feels that way to our people."
In the wake of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, President Obama has come under increased scrutiny from lawmakers — particularly Republicans — for not adopting a more aggressive strategy to wipe out Islamic State group strongholds in Iraq and Syria.
Pentagon officials said in recent months that those efforts, combined with offensives by local forces on the ground, have made significant advances in retaking territory controlled by Islamic State group extremists.
Carter said much of that progress is due to better intelligence from U.S. forces in the region, which have opened the way for improved attacks on IS supply lines and leadership sites. He also said the American presence there has attracted new allies in both countries, connected to and separate from the Iraqi government.
The White House had already announced plans to put small numbers of U.S. special operations personnel in Syria to coordinate with those local forces.
Yet military officials flatly reject the suggestion that deploying more troops to Iraq amounts to "mission creep."
"Mission creep … it's not really a doctrinal phrase. We see this as conducting operations to defeat ISIL. That's our mission — our mission: defeat ISIL. So no, this is not mission creep," Warren said.
U.S. combat aircraft have been dropping bombs more frequently during the past several months, Warren said, with the percentage of combat sorties resulting in an aircraft dropping a bomb on a target rising from about 50 percent in July and August to about 65 percent in November.
Obama has repeatedly pledged not to put U.S. troops on the ground in the fight against the Islamic State group, arguing that the extremists can be permanently eradicated only if local fighters lead the effort.
Carter repeated that philosophy on Tuesday, saying that lasting peace in the region cannot be won through American military might alone.
But he said defense officials are "eager to do more" if the initial expeditionary efforts help local forces make more advances against Islamic State group strongholds.
Several Republicans questioned Carter's assertions that U.S. service members are making real progress in the fight.
Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, told Carter that "most of us do not have confidence [that] you have a strategy, or one based on accurate intelligence."
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., asked: "Why should we think the administration is on the right path now … when you say you didn't have the right intelligence back in 2010?"
Carter dodged questions about past mistakes in the region that may have allowed IS to regroup and grow, but said he is confident that the current approach will eventually succeed.
"We have the right elements in place today," he said. "We will win. We are going to win."
Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.