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US to deploy 'about 200' special force troops to fight IS group in Iraq

AFP | US Us Army trainer with Iraqi troops in July 2015

The White House said Wednesday a new force of special operations troops being deployed to Iraq to fight the Islamic State (IS) group would number “about 200”, while dismissing concerns the Iraqi government was against the move.

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US Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced the deployment of the new “specialised expeditionary targeting force” on Tuesday, saying it was being carried out in coordination with Iraq’s government and would aid Iraqi government security forces and Kurdish peshmerga forces.

“These special operators will over time be able to conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence and capture ISIL leaders,” Carter told the US House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, using an acronym for IS group.

“This force will also be in a position to conduct unilateral operations into Syria.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s office issued a statement saying it welcomed foreign assistance but that foreign ground combat troops were not needed in the country.

‘No need for foreign ground troops’

"There is no need for foreign ground combat forces in Iraqi territory," Abadi said in a statement released late Tuesday in which he praised the performance of Iraqi special forces.

"The Iraqi government stresses that any military operation or presence of any foreign force, special or not, in any place in Iraq cannot be done without its approval and coordination with it," the statement said.

But White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Wednesday that Albadi’s remarks were directed at ground combat troops, not special operations forces.

Powerful Iraqi Shiite Muslim armed groups pledged to fight any such deployment of US forces to the country.

Jafaar Hussaini, a spokesman for Kata’ib Hezbollah, one of the main Shiite militant groups, said that any such US force would become a “primary target for our group.” “We fought them before and we are ready to resume fighting,” he said.

US military spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said Wednesday that the White House had been in discussion with Iraqi officials about the deployment for some time.

"We've been talking with the prime minister about this for weeks," he said.

Warren said the force would not entail "ground combat with armor and artillery and combined armed operations and death and destruction everywhere you look”.

"These are raids, these are a small number of highly skilled commandos conducting very precise, very limited operations ... so there is a difference."

Expanding US operations

Despite the US force’s relatively small size, its creation marks the latest stepping up of US military pressure on the IS group while also exposing American forces to greater risk, something President Barack Obama has done only sparingly.

The force is separate from a previously announced deployment of up to 50 US special operations troops in Syria to coordinate on the ground with US-backed rebels fighting in a civil war raging since 2011.

Obama is under pressure to accelerate the US-led coalition’s efforts to combat the IS group, in particular after the November 13 Paris attacks that killed 130 people. He has been reluctant to commit large numbers of US ground troops, instead deploying limited numbers of advisors and elite forces.

Fred Hof, formerly a top State Department adviser on Syria, said the planned deployment of special forces to Iraq to conduct raids and gather intelligence represented a shift by Obama.

Hof, who is now at the Atlantic Council think-tank, said the US special forces were filling a gap in capable ground forces to fight the IS group, which won control of Iraq’s Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi in May and also controls the northern city of Mosul.

Obama in August 2014 authorized the first US air strikes in Iraq since the 2011 US troop withdrawal and has deployed more than 3,000 American military forces to train and advise Iraqi and Kurdish forces to fight the IS group.

His critics, including Republicans in Congress, accuse Obama of moving too slowly against the IS group, which controls large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria and claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks.

Republican US Senator John McCain said on Tuesday the new force represented more “incrementalism” in the Obama administration’s approach toward the Islamic State group.

The top US military officer, Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, said the new force would greatly accelerate the collection of intelligence, which “will make our operations much more effective.”

“We’re fighting a campaign across Iraq and Syria so we’re going to go where the enemy is, and we’re going to conduct operations where they most effectively degrade the capabilities of the enemy,” Dunford testified.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

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