Smoke rises on Aug. 18 during airstrikes targeting Islamic State militants at the Mosul Dam outside Mosul, Iraq. Boosted by two days of U.S. airstrikes, Iraqi and Kurdish forces on Monday wrested back control of the country's largest dam from Islamic militants, a military spokesman in Baghdad said, as fighting was reported to be underway for the rest of the strategic facility. (Khalid Mohammed / AP)
Crisis in Iraq
The mission for U.S. troops in Iraq to help Kurdish and Iraqi security forces in their fight against Islamic militants remains limited for now, but may expand after Iraqi leaders form a new government, a Pentagon spokesman said Tuesday.
Rear Adm. John Kirby denied press reports that said U.S. troops were on the ground near the Mosul Dam this weekend, operating alongside Kurdish and Iraqi combat forces and helping to coordinate dozens of U.S. airstrikes in the area.
Yet he acknowledged that the more than 200 U.S. special operations troops currently in Iraq are offering some ongoing guidance to Iraqi security forces as they fight to retake large swaths of territory now controlled by the Islamic State militants.
“We are providing a measure of advice and assistance,” Kirby said at a briefing with reporters at the Pentagon.
“The bulk of the coordination and communications between us and the Iraqi security force is being done at the joint operations centers,” he said, referring to the two American-run command-and-control outposts in Baghdad and the Kurdish city of Irbil.
In June, the Defense Department sent more than 200 special operations troops into Iraq and said their role was limited to making intelligence assessments that would help inform future U.S. decisions. That expanded after President Obama authorized airstrikes Aug. 7.
“There was a level of coordination and communication between the U.S. forces conducting these airstrikes and the Kurdish and Iraq forces on the ground ... prior to and during the operations,” Kirby said.
When asked later in his briefing about the possibility of the assessment teams working more closely with the new Iraqi government, Kirby said, “I think we would be open to considering that.”
But he added that at this point, “We have not moved to what we would consider an advisory capacity in terms of these assessment teams becoming advisory teams and placing them at headquarters and higher-level units.”
Such a decision may hinge on the new Iraqi government that is forming now, he said.
The most recent Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was criticized for favoring Shiite Muslims and fueling resentment among members of the Sunni minority who are supporting the Islamic State. But Maliki agreed to step down last week and many hope his successor will form a more inclusive government that will share power and oil wealth with disaffected Sunnis and help undermine their support for the Islamic State.
“We need to make sure whatever partner we have in Iraq, it’s a reliable partner. And now they are forming this new government, so we’ll see,” Kirby said, adding that “there has been no decision about moving toward a more formal advisory role.”
A total of nearly 1,000 U.S troops are in Iraq and U.S. aircraft have mounted at least 70 airstrikes on Islamic State military assets since Obama authorized the bombing campaign less than two weeks ago.
Obama approved airstrikes for two specific missions: to prevent humanitarian catastrophes and to protect U.S. personnel on the ground.
Under that authorization, U.S. forces last weekend dropped dozens of bombs near the Mosul Dam, essentially providing close-air support for the Kurdish and Iraqi forces attacking the militants who had captured control of it.
Iraqi and Kurdish forces have retaken the dam, a critical facility that controls much of Iraq’s water supply and electricity.
The Islamic State retreat from the dam was a major setback for the militants.
“We’ve begun to see that through the use of these strikes, their morale is suffering, their competency and capacity has been damaged, so they are not invincible,” Kirby said.
On Monday, the McClatchy newspapers reported that U.S. special operations forces were on the ground near the dam helping to coordinate airstrikes. Kirby said those reports were not accurate.
Kirby pushed back on critics who say “mission creep” is slowly expanding the military operation in Iraq.
“Mission creep — this is a phrase that gets bandied about quite a bit. Mission creep refers to the growth or expansion of the goals and objectives of a military operation, that the goals and objective change, morph into something bigger than they were at the outset. Mission creep doesn’t refer to the number of sorties, number of troops, number of anything,” he said.
“Nothing has changed about the missions inside Iraq. ... Airstrikes are authorized under two mission areas: humanitarian assistance and the protection of U.S. personnel and facilities,” Kirby said. “The goals and objectives have not changed.”