If the plan is approved, the administration is expected to send around 400 additional troops to advise Iraqi forces. There are now 3,080 U.S. service members in Iraq.
The changes come as U.S. officials grapple with the continuing shortcomings of Iraqi forces, on whom the U.S. strategy against the militant group relies. A year after Islamic State fighters captured much of northern and western Iraq, a U.S.-led campaign of airstrikes and renewed military training has not translated into decisive Iraqi victories.
The vulnerabilities of Iraqi forces were evident in May when they retreated from the city of Ramadi, handing the capital of western Iraq’s Anbar province to Islamic State fighters. That defeat showed that despite a nascent U.S. training effort, Iraqi troops still suffer from discipline and morale problems that have often made them ineffective against a much smaller insurgent force.
A U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing deliberations, said the United States would probably expand its presence in Anbar province. Several assessment visits have been made to a military base near the town of Habbaniyah, with a view to moving U.S. advisers to the site. That would put the American troops less then 20 miles outside Ramadi and allow them to help Iraqi forces and tribal fighters prepare for a battle to retake the city.
“We are looking at it closely,” the official said. “We need to firm up our presence out there. There’s been a debate about getting a site in the eastern part of Anbar for some time. Iraqis had asked for it. Ramadi forced the issue.”
This week, President Obama noted the need to intensify the training effort in Iraq, promising as he wrapped up a meeting of world leaders in Germany to find ways to accelerate training and delivery of weapons to U.S. allies in Iraq.
“All the countries in the international community are prepared to do more to train the Iraqi security force if they feel like that additional work has been taken advantage of,” Obama said.
But American officials, including Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, have questioned with increasing openness the Iraqis’ will to fight. In late May, Carter asked Pentagon officials to develop options for tweaking the current strategy to bolster Iraq’s military power, a defense official said, also speaking on the condition of anonymity. Since then, officials from the Pentagon and U.S. Central Command, together with the White House, have examined possible actions in what the official called an “iterative” process. Last week, Obama’s top aides met at the White House to discuss Iraq strategy.
Also on Tuesday, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested that the number of training sites could be increased.
Currently, U.S. and allied trainers are working with Iraqi and Kurdish forces at five training sites around Iraq. But, speaking to reporters during a trip to Israel, Dempsey cautioned there would be no radical change to the U.S. strategy.
Officials hope in particular to increase the participation of Sunni Arab fighters, whose role in the military effort led by the government of Shiite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has fallen short of U.S. expectations. But the White House, mindful of Obama’s vows to end the last Iraq war and keep U.S. troops out of ground combat in the Middle East, will be eager to limit U.S. involvement.
Moving additional troops to Anbar reflects the seriousness with which U.S. officials see the loss of Ramadi last month.
The second official said that increasing U.S. presence is important “given the centrality of getting Sunnis in the fight.”
Around 300 U.S. Marines are already in the province, based at Ayn al-Asad, around 50 miles northwest of Ramadi. There, they have been playing an advise-and-assist role with local Sunni tribesmen, but the site is surrounded by Islamic State-held territory, and Habbaniyah is currently the focus for the operation to retake Ramadi.
Shiite militias have expanded their presence in the area since Abadi ordered them to the province after Iraqi security forces there collapsed. Kitaeb Hezbollah, designated a terrorist organization by the United States, is among those with fighters at the base in Habbaniyah. “It’s a very big base,” the U.S. official said.
The militiamen are expected to vacate the base if American troops are sent there.
The administration is expected to unveil the changes to its training plan in the next few days.
Morris reported from Baghdad.