WASHINGTON — An anticipated military escalation in northern Iraq will include up to 300 additional U.S. troops from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, an infusion of combat power intended to accelerate the ouster of Islamic State fighters from their stronghold in Mosul.
The paratroopers comprise two infantry companies and a route-clearance platoon from the division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, according to a U.S. defense official, who spoke to Military Times on the condition of anonymity. They are scheduled to depart from Fort Bragg in North Carolina on Tuesday.
As Military Times first reported Sunday, U.S. officials consider the deployment temporary, though they've not disclosed how long it could last. The soldiers will contribute to what's been described as an "advise and assist" mission, supporting Iraqi ground forces who are doing the bulk of the fighting against ISIS.
However, it's likely at least some will be moved close to the action in Mosul, where an estimated 2,000 ISIS fighters remain hidden among the civilians they've trapped there. The combat engineers and explosives specialists inherent to a route-clearance unit could be called on to disable or remove roadside bombs as the Iraqis and their American advisers push deeper into the city.
The infantry soldiers could be tasked with a variety assignments. Photos released by the Army in late February and early March show various 82nd Airborne soldiers in and around Mosul, posted on city rooftops and manning mortar positions in the surrounding desert.
U.S. soldiers assigned to the Army's 2nd Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, overlook Mosul while manning a mortar fire position on Feb. 28, 2017.
Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Alex Manne/Army
With the paratroopers' arrival, there will be well over 6,000 American military personnel on the ground in Iraq, though officials refuse to say precisely how many. The authorized force size is 5,262, but the Pentagon has acknowledged the number is greater — and has been for some time — as commanders leverage what they call "non-enduring" assignments like this one involving the 82nd Airborne.
After five months, the battle for Mosul remains a slow, steady slog. The extra manpower was deemed necessary by U.S. commanders who've been tasked by the White House with bringing more force to bear on ISIS in Iraq and in Syria, where another 900 Americans are on the ground supporting allied forces closing in on the city of Raqqa, which ISIS considers its capital.
That's expected to be a difficult fight, and the Pentagon is said to be contemplating an escalation there as well, though publicly officials dispute such reports. It's a sensitive topic for several reasons, not the least of which centers around a deepening desire in Washington to reduce the perception abroad that America's military footprint is growing in the region. The Trump administration also has expressed a desire to curtail what information it telegraphs about military strategy.
Andrew deGrandpre is Military Times' senior editor and Pentagon bureau chief. On Twitter: @adegrandpre
Michelle Tan is Army Times' editor. On Twitter: @MichelleTan32