UPDATED 9/29/16 at 2:10 EST with comments from McCain
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Pentagon is sending 615 additional U.S. troops to Iraq to help bolster local forces as they prepare to invade the Islamic State group's stronghold in Mosul,
Speaking to reporters here Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter confirmed an announcement by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi that the U.S. is adding what al-Abad called a "final increase" of American forces.
"These forces will be primarily to enable Iraqi security forces, and also peshmerga, in the operations to isolate and collapse ISIL's control over Mosul, but also to protect and expand Iraqi security forces gains elsewhere in Iraq," Carter said. "The forces being added are in the same categories of the existing forces, that is, enablers to provide logistics, train and advise and assist, and intelligence support."
A senior defense official added that the 615 troops would joining existing forces "in the coming weeks," but would not give a harder timeline for when those forces could arrive, nor say what units are being assigned to the fight.
The secretary said troops would be going to a number of locations, including Qayyarah Airfield West, which the Pentagon has been building up as a logistics hub for Iraqi forces. Part of the focus for the new forces will be building out the infrastructure at that airfield, located 40 miles south of Mosul.
Qayyarah "is one location where as you know we're in the process, which we will complete shortly, to complete that as a logistic hub. Another place I'll mention is Al Assad [Airbase], once again in a logistics role to be part of the supply, especially, and logistics supporting the campaign," Carter said, who later said some troops will head to Al Taqaddum Airbase as well.
Carter reiterated that these new forces, like other U.S. forces in Iraq, would not be front-line combat troops, but he acknowledged that American military working against ISIL are inherently "in harms way," adding that force protection units are an "extremely important part" of the troop packages.
In a statement Wednesday, al-Abadi called the plus-up of forces a "final increase" before the Mosul fight, which Carter said will kick off in the "coming weeks."
"American President Barack Obama was consulted on a request from the Iraqi government for a final increase in the number of trainers and advisers under the umbrella of the international coalition in Iraq," al-Abadi said Wednesday, according to a report from the Reuters news agency.
Asked about that comment, Carter said that the forces announced today are "what we now foresee as required for the development and seizure of Mosul. We’ll continue to asses with prime minister Abadi. It will continue to be his decision for U.S. and coalition forces, as the head of the sovereign nation of Iraq."
The number of American troops authorized to be in Iraq is now 5,262, according to the senior defense official.
In early September, about 400 American troops moved into Iraq quietly, bringing the current force level there up near the maximum number authorized by the White House.
Abadi’s announcement comes one week after Vice President Joe Biden visited Abadi in Baghdad and the two talked about ‘the urgency of advancing Iraqi-led efforts to liberate Mosul," according to a statement from the White House.
Most of the American troops in Iraq are special operations forces. They are authorized to advise and assist Iraqi-led combat operations at the brigade and battalion level.
U.S. commanders in Iraq are also authorized to deploy AH-64 Apache attack helicopters to provide close-air support for Iraqi ground forces, a capability that may be vital in densely populated urban areas.
Carter told reporters he remains confident that the fight for Mosul is going to happen in the coming weeks because "we’re on schedule in terms of marshaling the forces there," but said it is unclear exactly how long the fight might take.
"We’ll have to see. Different cities have fallen in different ways, as we’ve seen in the course of the Iraqi army’s campaign," Carter said. "All of these have had a somewhat different experience.
"We do not know what ISIL’s plan’s will be for the defense of Mosul, nor if they will be able to carry out whatever plans they have, whether their fighters will stick with them, whether they’ll have the morale to do that, whether the populace of Mosul will tolerate their continued presence in their city under those circumstances," Carter explained. "So we are prepared for whatever happens."
The U.S. announcement comes as NATO increases its own efforts to counter the Islamic State group. In April, some 350 Iraqi officers from its army and ministry of the interior began training at the King Abdullah Special Operations Training Centre in Amman, Jordan.
Some of the courses — such as counter-IED education and civil-military planning — are focused on building up the Iraqi government’s ability to stabilize the country. But graduates from the non-commissioned officers course, which wraps up Thursday, may go on to participate in the fight to liberate Mosul from Islamic State rule, said Jordanian special operator Lt. Col. Naser Lutfi-Arabiyat, who led the six-week NCO training program.
This week, Defense News was invited by NATO to observe those exercises. Over the course of Wednesday morning, officers practiced clearing mock villages in both mounted and dismounted operations. At another building at the KASOTC compound, a separate team breached the entryway and filed into the tower, where they shot at paper targets of terrorists and tried to avoid hitting photos of civilians.
"They came in with a level between weak and mid, to be honest," Lufti-Arabiyat said of the 28 NCOs who participated. After the course, the officers reached a "very good, some of them excellent level."
Capitol Hill reaction
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., and a frequent critic of the Obama administration, teed off on the decision to send additional troops as "incrementalism" and indicative of the president's unfocused strategy in Iraq and Syria.
"It's the incrementalism we used to call mission creep, showing that they really have no real strategy," McCain said. "Remember this was the country that we could not have a military presence in because we didn't have a status of forces agreement with the [Iraqi] parliament — that sick joke."
McCain, who has tepidly endorsed Donald Trump as the Republican presidential candidate, threw Trump into his critique of the administration's. In Monday's debate with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary, Trump said Obama's decision to withdraw troop from Iraq in 2011 left a vacuum for the Islamic State's rise.
"Trump was right," McCain said. "[Obama] pulled everybody out, al-Qaida went to Syria, became ISIS and that's what we're facing today. Does the president bear personal responsibility? The president bears personal responsibility for everything that happens while he is president of the United States."
The added troops bolsters the case for the administration to ask Congress for a supplemental spending bill to cover overseas operations, McCain said.
With Andrew Tilghman and Joe Gould in Washington and Valerie Insinna in Amman, Jordan
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.
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.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.