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U.S. To Send 100 More Troops To Iraq In Fight Against Islamic State

The Pentagon says the new force will help secure the border between Iraq and Syria and hunt down Islamic State leaders in raids.
AFP/Getty Images
The Pentagon says the new force will help secure the border between Iraq and Syria and hunt down Islamic State leaders in raids.

The Pentagon says it will increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq by 100, in an effort to create a special operations targeting force that will seek out and kill ISIS leaders, rescue hostages and gather intelligence. And for the first time, officials have acknowledged that some of these troops will engage in raids that amount to combat operations.

The U.S. already has some 3,500 troops in Iraq, mostly working as advisers and trainers for the country's security forces.

This new force will take the fight to ISIS, in an effort to secure the border between Iraq and Syria and hunt down Islamic State leaders in raids.

Col. Steve Warren outlined the plan to reporters in a conference call from Baghdad.

"A raid is a combat operation; there's no way around that," he said. "More Americans will be coming here to Iraq and some of them will be conducting raids inside of both Iraq and Syria."

Warren said most of the hundred soldiers taking part in the targeting force will be support personnel, flying helicopters and gathering intelligence. He said there won't be many of what he called "trigger-pullers."

"So, actual forces who can do offensive kinetic operations, it's a very small number, double-digit number," he said.

Some members of Congress, including Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democratic member of the House intelligence committee, expressed concern about the new force.

"You need a lot of special operators to maintain a certain tempo, to be able to not only capture or kill the targets, but also exploit intelligence and then use that exploited intelligence to do another raid," he said today on MSNBC. "The addition of another small number of special operators is probably not enough to maintain that kind of tempo to change the dynamic on the ground very much."

Another Democratic member of Congress, Barbara Lee of California, said Congress should have a more serious debate about the way ahead.

"The deployment of additional special operations forces to Iraq should be a wake-up call to Congress," she said in a statement. "It's past time to hold a serious debate on the costs and consequences of yet another war in the Middle East."

The announcement of the targeting force comes one month after an American special operator, Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, was killed in a raid on an ISIS prison in northern Iraq, while helping Kurdish forces. At the time, Pentagon officials insisted he was still part of a training effort.

After Wheeler's death, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said, "This is someone who saw the team that he was advising and assisting coming under attack. And he rushed to help them and made it possible for them to be effective."

Recently, the Pentagon said it would send dozens of special operators into Syria to train and assist rebel fighters. Now, this new targeting unit will include trigger-pullers, despite President Obama's pledge two years ago:

"I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria," the president said. "I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan."

When asked about the president's comment, Warren said there's a distinction between combat raids and ground combat like the invasion of Iraq.

"What we're talking about here is ground formations, right combat formations, We're not talking about 2003 Thunder Run from Kuwait up to Baghdad. That's ground combat," he said.

There were some reports that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was opposed to any U.S. combat operations. But White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the U.S. has been working with Abadi on creating the new targeting force.

What Abadi opposes, Earnest said, are calls in Congress for 10,000 or more U.S. combat forces — something, he said, the president opposes, too.

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Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.