The first U.S. service members ordered to Iraq to help the Iraqi military counter an advancing Sunni insurgency have arrived in the country, Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said today.
About 90 troops have arrived in Baghdad, where they will join some 40 others attached to the U.S. Embassy to establish assessment teams and a joint operations center with Iraqi forces.
They are the first of what could be up to 300 U.S. military advisors President Barack Obama has ordered to the country to assess an insurgency led by a Syrian-based extremist group that has routed the Iraqi military and taken over much of the country’s Sunni-dominated north and west while continuing to move closer to Baghdad, threatening to push Iraq to the brink of full-blown sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites. The group is known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, and also as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
Kirby told reporters four additional teams totaling about 50 people will arrive in Iraq in the coming days. U.S. special operators will assess the cohesiveness of Iraqi security forces and the threat posed by advancing ISIL insurgents, and then will provide recommendations on how to best help the Iraqi military.
“We expect that they’ll start to flow their assessments up through the chain of command in about two to three weeks,” the admiral said.
U.S. military aircraft already are flying up to three dozen surveillance missions over Iraq every day and, Kirby said, are “sharing what we can with the Iraqi security forces.”
At his regular Pentagon briefing, Kirby said the United States does not yet have a full picture of the situation on the ground, but that ISIL fighters continue to solidify their gains as they advance and have no trouble crossing the Iraq-Syria border at will.
“They continue to press into central and southern Iraq, … and they are still a legitimate threat to Baghdad,” he added.
The U.S. troops arrived in Iraq a day after defense officials said the Baghdad government had provided “acceptable assurances” that the Americans would receive the necessary legal protections to operate in the country, the same level of immunity Kirby said, that diplomats and U.S. forces based at the U.S. Embassy already receive.
While the United States and Iraq do not have a status of forces agreement in place to provide U.S. troops in the country with blanket immunity, Kirby said, Iraq has committed to protections that are “adequate to the short-term assessment and advisory mission our troops will be performing.”