As U.S. troops begin rebuilding a key Iraqi airfield outside of the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, U.S. military officials say the size of the American force in Iraq may continue to grow.

The U.S. troops are focusing on the battered airfield that which the Iraqis captured last week from the Islamic State militants, also known as ISIS or ISIL. The air field is about 50 miles south of Mosul.  

The airfield near the Tigris River town of Qayara is now known as Qayara West. After the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the airfield was home to a U.S. Army brigade headquarters and was known as "FOB Endurance."

An assessment team of U.S. troops visited the airfield this week and found it "badly damaged," but its key location will make it a major supply hub for the Iraqi army's eventual invasion of Mosul, said Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command.

Other U.S. troops will likely arrive soon, including "engineers who can go onto the airfield and enable runway operations," Ryder said.

Also, the U.S will soon send in troops to provide security for those engineers and a communications unit. "All those things that are required to open and maintain an airfield," Ryder told reporters Friday.

The total size of the U.S. force in Iraq may continue to grow as the American-backed Iraqi forces prepare for a final assault on Mosul.

"As we continue on the mission, I think there will be some additional troops that we will ask to bring in," U.S. Army General Joseph Votel told Reuters news agency during a recent trip to BaghdadBahdad. He did not speculate on a specific number of troops. 

Votel's comments came just days after Defense Secretary Ash Carter's announcement that the size of the U.S. force authorized for Iraq will increase by 560 troops to about 4,600.

Ryder said additional requests for troops would be linked to specific missions, like the one at Qayara designed to help the Iraqis.

"There is the possibility that we will need more forces, as evidenced by Qayara West where we need some additional U.S. forces as expertise that the U.S. provides very well and that is logistics and the ability to improve this airfield and enable it to become an logistics node," Ryder said.

Ryder declined to say whether the U.S. will deploy aircraft to the base. U.S. forces have Appache H-64 gunships for close-air support and V-22 tilt-rotor Ospreys at some other bases in Iraq, including the American-run forward operating base in Erbil about 50 miles east of Mosul.

The Qayara airfield sits along an important supply line linking Mosul with ISIS territory to the south and east. By seizing it, the Iraqis have effectively split ISIS-held territory, isolating a large patch of terrain stretching south toward Bayji and east to the town of Hawija.

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.

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